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Wartime Experience of Joseph Sacharin Part 1

by BBC Scotland

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Contributed by 
BBC Scotland
People in story: 
Joseph Sacharin
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Vijiha Bashir, at BBC Scotland on behalf of Joseph Sacharin and has been added to the site with the permission of Johnstone History Society. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I joined the Royal Navy in June 1943. I went to HMS “Collingwood” at Fareham in Hampshire for my basic training. The train journey to London at that time usually took more than 20 hours. The first or second night after I arrived, a bomb fell on one of the huts, so the night was spent sifting through the rubble for survivors.

After basic training I was drafted to a transit camp at Stockheath nearby. This was a large tented camp, and because of the blackout, if someone came back late at night, he would usually look foe the first tent which had some space in it, and would sleep there. There was a big crowd of us, and one of the officers asked if anyone had a school certificate. I was the only one who stepped forward. The officer wanted to know the subjects taken. The procedure was to look at the notice board every morning to see if our names appeared for draft. When I look at the board the following morning, my name appeared to take charge of an outside working party of six, to collect picks and shovels, to dig trenches about a mile away. We would march along the road in single file, very often singing “Heigh Ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go”, just like the seven dwarfs in Snow White. Fortunately, this did not last long and I was drafted to Force J2.

This was a combined operation group, firstly at Wyke Regis in Dorset where some of us were billeted at Wyke House, and then moved to Weymouth, Dorset, which was a base for motor torpedo boats and motor gunboats (MTS & MGBs). I went 2 or 3 times a week to the Naval Base at Portland Bill for revolver practice. We had Smith and Wesson 38s and/or Webley 45s. I took part in practice landing near Swanage, and did guard duty at Alexandra Palace Hotel, where plans were being prepared for the invasion. I had wanted to go to sea and saw the Commanding Officer. He recommended me for a commission, which meant that I would have to do some sea-time.

I was drafted to Newcastle to join a Tribal Class Destroyer, HMS “Nubian”. She was being repaired there as she had been damaged in the Tunisian Campaign. We were attached to Western Approaches Command and operated in the channel and the North Atlantic (based at Milford Haven or Greenock). We escorted troopships, such as the “Queen Mary”, “Queen Elizabeth”, “Empress of Britain” and other former liners; about 500 miles into the Atlantic, where we left them to continue on their own, as they were fast and could outrun any U-Boats, unless one was already in the area. We would wait around to pick up another ship and escort it to Greenock or Milford Haven. We were also attached to the Home Fleet, based at Scapa Flow, as Artic Patrol, which included mainly the Faroe Islands, where we sometimes anchored in Skalfjord, North Cape (Norway), and as far north as Bear Island and the Barents Sea, which is part of the Artic Ocean. We also took part in most of the strikes against the “Tirpitz”, anchored in Altenfjord, Norway, escorting Aircraft Carriers, Battleships and Cruisers. One escort carrier “Nabob” was torpedoed, but not sunk.

Life on board a destroyer was very hard. The mess decks usually had about a foot of water sloshing about. This was mainly due to the ammunition chutes on the upper deck being open. We were not allowed to sling hammocks at se, because in the event of being sun, a properly lasher hammock could keep one afloat for about 12 hours, it was reckoned. We slept on the tables or lockers. At one time, destroyer personnel received “Hard-Lying” (i.e. “Hard-Living”) money. This was discontinued, it was said, after Lady Asto sailed in a destroyer from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, on a summer’s day, and declared that 2Hard-Lying money” was unnecessary. She was frequently mentioned, by the crew, when we were in very severe weather conditions.

Whenever we were in harbour, there was always painting to be done. It was generally considered that the ship carried more paint than ammunition. It seemed to me that I was either painting over the side or up the mast. At Milford Haven when I was up the mast painting, I saw a whaler (i.e. a 27 foot long rowing boat, which was carried by akl warships). I approached our Commander and suggested that we should form a racing whaler crew. He asked if I had any relevant experience, and I said yes. (My brother and I had occasionally taken out a rowing boat in Rouken Glen pond). Since we needed a lot of practice, we were all excused duties, such as painting etc.

When we were practising at Scapa Flow one day, a Force 7 gale blew up. There were two Canadian Tribal Class Destroyers, HMCS “Iroquois” and HMCS “Algonquin”. Fortunately we were quite near them so we rowed to the nearest one (I can’t remember which one?) and were allowed to tie up and climb on board. They sent a signal to our ship saying that we were safe on board. After some time, it was calm enough for us to return. They loaded us up with tins of fruit and other goodies that we had not seen for a long time.

On another occasion, at Milford Haven, when we were out rowing there was a Coastal Command Sunderland Flying Boat (NSQ) moored and someone was working on it. We rowed over and I asked him if there was any chance of a flight. He said I should speak to the Captain, who happened to be on board, so he went to get him. The Captain said that they were due to go out in about an hour’s time for a two hour flight, and he would be wiling to take some of us. We rowed back quickly to the ship and I asked our Commander for permission to go. He agreed, provided that he could come too. So we all went and I took some photographs of, in and from, the plane. We reciprocated the following day, by taking about 12 RAF personnel on a short trip in the English Channel, escorting the USS “Mount Vernon”, along with the destroyer “Serapis”. We returned to Milford Haven, after about 20 hours, to drop off the RAF men.

Two days later, we were in the Atlantic. We picked up th “Queen Mary” and the cruiser “Devonshire” about noon. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and his advisors were on the “Queen Mary” on their return from America. The following afternoon we reached Greenock.

On of my jobs for a time was “Buoy-Jumper”. When a ship came into harbour, it very often moored to a buoy. These buoys were usually cylindrical with the curved surface uppermost. There was a ring and a strip of metal, about two or three inches thick lengthwise, on either side of the ring, as foot rests for standing on the buoy. The procedure was that the motor boat took two buoy jumpers as close to the buoy as possible. They climbed on to the buoy, carrying a rope which was attached to a locking hook on a wire rope on the ship. Once the jumpers were on the buoy, the ship came as near as possible to the buoy, and let out the wire rope, so that the jumper could pull the hook and attach it to the ring. The ship could then position itself as safe distance from the buoy, depending on wind and sea conditions. The jumpers were then taken off the buoy by motor boat. This could be quite a dangerous operation. On one occasion, at Greenock the other jumper and myself were on the buoy for two hours, in very severe weather conditions and the ship had great difficulty in getting close to the buoy. We were soaked and very cold, and when we were eventually taken off and back to the ship, we were each given a tot of neat rum and excused duties for the rest of the day.

In January 1945, my recommend for a commission finally came through and I went to the Royal Navy Barracks at Portsmouth for pre-commission selection. This included lecturettes, tests in Power of Command, Seamanship and signals. We also had an Assault Course at” Whale Island”, officially known as HMS “Excellent”, a Gunnery School, which had a fearsome reputation for discipline. Walking was forbidden; everything had to be done at the double. Anyone seen walking was immediately put on a charge.

Having passed this I went to HMS “Raleigh” at Plymouth for a more intensive Pre Commission Course, which lasted about a week. This included Acuity Tests, Leadership Tests, a selective Obstacle Course and giving Lecturettes.

The war in Europe seemed to be coming to an end, and when a notice appeared about volunteers for the Far East, in particular, sounded interesting and attractive.

Shortly afterwards I joined a sloop HMS “Alacrity” at Dumbarton, where she was built at Denny’s yard. A Sloop was a small anti-submarine convoy escort vessel. We did our running-in trials in the Scottish Western Isles. At Mull, there were about 6 or 7 ships and we had an intership walking race, 10 miles, from Tobermory to Salen. I cam in second, wearing out a pair of boots in the process. We were taken back to Tobermory in the yacht “Philante”, which had once belonged to a German general (von Ludendorff, I think). In the Atlantic we made contact with a U-Boat (U 764) and depth-charged it until it came to the surface. With our guns trained on it, we escorted it up to Loch Eriboll in the North of Scotland. In fact, our guns could not be elevated at the time, so we were virtually useless. This was the first tme we actually knew the result. We had dpth-charged many U-Boats, but on some occasions although there was an oil-slick, this did not necessarily mean that they were sunk.

On our way out to the Far East, we stopped at Malta and Alexandria, Egypt. My brother was in the army, stationed in the Sudan. I wrote to him that I expected to be in Alexandria at some particular time. (It had to be written in “code”, as names and places were strictly censored). He got a flight up from Khartoum in an RAF plane, and as they approached Alexandria he saw my ship just leaving. Once during “Captain’s Round” our Commanding Officer came into our mess when I was teaching three messmates simple arithmetic and algebra, he asked me what I was doing. I explained to him and a short time later he asked me if I could act as “Schoolmaster”. On big ships there was usually an “Education Officer” from the Naval Instructor Branch, but ours was a small ship so we did not have one. I agreed, provided that I was not confined to one single watch. One watch always remained on board while the other went ashore. Consequently I was given a job in the stores and my action station (previously at the guns or depth charges) was in the wheel house, as I was regarded as being a competent helmsman. In action, the cox’n took the helm, but there was often a stand-by in case he was injured. Big ships generally had three watches whereas small ships usually had two. Not being assigned to any watch meant that I could go to shore anytime we were in port.

Leaving Alexandria, we went through the Suez Canal to Colombo (Ceylon), Port Darwin in Northern Australia, Morotai (Molucca Islands), Hong Kong and Shanghai. The first two British ships in Shanghai were the Sloops HMS “Redpole” and HMS “Alacrity”. There was also the American Cruiser USS “St. Paul”. Three or four of the American crew failed to return to the ship after shore leave, and a notice was posted on our ship about the effect of wood alcohol, which apparently had been the cause of the Americans disappearance. I was first ashore and was met by two Chinese, a young man and a young woman. They had been educated at Fuchow (or Soochow) University and both spoke English. Their main purpose was to show visitors the better parts of Shanghai, and to show to show them good class shops where they buy genuine articles at reasonable prices (e.g. silks were popular). They also took me to the Sun Sun Hotel for a meal, which consisted of about ten courses. After each course, a waitress handed out a damp cloth for hands and face, and collected them before the next course. This hotel also had a large barber shop, where all the barbers wore surgical face masks. It was one of the large (if not the largest) hotels in Shanghai. At that time, excluding the Americas, Shanghai reportedly had the tallest buildings in the world. I bought a little book entitled “Chinese Self-Taught” or something similar, written by a Missionary Minister and published bout 1900. One of the so called useful words and phrases was “My concubine has a sick head this morning”. Shanghai, at that time was still an International Settlement, and there were a number different quarters. I have walked through the British, French, German and Indian sectors, and each one had shops, restaurants, languages and police etc, to all intents and purposes, just like the parent country. On my return to the ship, I gave a couple of short talks about Shanghai. Shortly afterwards we had a tea party on board for a number of British women who had been interned there. For some time we alternated between Hong Kong (Canton River patrol) and Shanghai (Yangtze patrol).

Later on, when there were a number of ships in Shanghai, I attended, and took part in, a Current Affairs Seminar, with lectures and discussions, on the Cruiser HMS “Belfast”. I was only uncommisioned (as distinct form “non-commissioned”, which includes Petty Officers, Chief Petty Officers and Warrant Officers) “Schoolmaster” there, all the others being certificated Education Officers.

One of the problems in China was currency. In Shanghai alone, there were at least four different currencies at the time. There was CRB (Chinese Reserve Bank), which had an exchange rate of something like 100,000 Yuan (Chinese Dollars) to the pound. This was introduced by the Japanese, I was told. There was CNC (Chinese National Currency) which was about 4000 Yuan to the pound. These were the two currencies I used, but there was also FNC (Federal National Currency), and the Chungking Dollar, I don’t know what these rates of exchange were. (Chungking was the Central Capital, Peking the Northern Capital, and Nanking and Southern Capital). Hong Kong had its own currency, The Hong Kong Dollar, worth at that time about 1/3d (one shilling and three pence, now about 6p).

The Chinese were experts with the abacus, and could change from one currency to another in just a few seconds.

In Hong Kong Islands (as distinct from Hong Kong, which included the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories, altogether over 200 islands), the capital was Victoria. My favourite haunts were the Peak, almost 3000 feet, on top of which was a structure generally known as the Japanese Memorial, and Tiger Balm Gardens. The tiger Balm was a potion, regarded throughout the Far East at the time as a panacea. There was a magnificent mansion there, belonging to the brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par who were millionaires and founders of the Balm. I was lucky to have been allowed in to the mansion, which had an abundance of ivory, antiques and precious stones.

We also went to Hongai (Vietnam, formally French Indo-China ex Annam), where there was the second Annamite Rebellion, and then Subic Bay (US base in the Philippines), Japan (Yokohama and Tokyo) and Sydney (Australia). Towards the end of February, we arrived in Auckland; New Zealanders had generously offered their hospitality for this purpose.

This Story Links with PART 2 'Wartime Experience of Joseph Sacharin Part 2' (A9023104)

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