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15 October 2014
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War Year Memoirs -Part 1

by felicitysimpson

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Petty Officer Robert Harry (Bob) Simpson
Location of story: 
Britain & Gibralter
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 June 2005

These are the memoirs written by my late husband in the form of a letter written to his children during the year prior to his death.

I wanted to share this for the benefit of other people who are interested in WW2.


By Petty Officer Robert Harry (Bob) Simpson


Ships - H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth
H.M.S. Cauldwell
H.M.S. Duckworth

Convoys - Mediterranean - Gibraltar, Malta, Crete, Alexandria.
Atlantic - ’Triangle run’
North Atlantic - Murmansk
English Channel - D Day.

Service medals include Atlantic Star, Africa Star, D Day medal, and one
commemorating Russian convoy to Murmansk.

Duties - Canteen Manager, Ammunition loading and Depth charge crew.

Background - born Gosport, Hants. 5.11.1923. Son of Arthur and Charlotte Simpson. Father - long term service in Royal Marines then 22 years in Admiralty Police. Elder brother, Bill, in Royal Navy on H.M.S. Warspite. Younger sister, Betty, and younger brother Alan (later joined R.A.F. at 15 and served 27 years.)

Memoirs written as a letter to his children, Wendy and Guy, in 1998, prior to his death 19.3.1999. Transcribed as a loving tribute by his widow, Felicity, in March, 2005.
When war was declared on September 3rd 1939, there was absolutely no way that I was going to carry on working as an apprentice in Weymouth,
and Dad understandingly knew I would not be content to wait another two years before reaching the calling up age of 18 and one wouldn’t have any choice of service. In his official capacity Dad made a wide range of contacts and he heard by chance that the Manager in charge of the N.A.A.F.I. canteen in H.M.S. Osprey, the local Anti Submarine training shore base just over five minutes walk up the road from our house, due the increase of trainees at the Osprey, they required one additional staff and was about to advertise the vacancy.
Before I continue I think it would be helpful if I explained how the N.A.A.F.I. originated and why as follows:-
During the previous 1914/18 war the service chiefs realised the necessity to provide the called up servicemen with some of the facilities they had had in civilian life to improve morale. So after the war the Government set up a private
Catering company and named it the Navy Army and Air Force Institute with its H.Q. in Ruislip, Surrey. Shops which servicemen called “Canteens” with suitable trained staff were installed in all the Army and Air Force camps at home and abroad enabling servicemen to easily purchase personal items (i.e. cigarettes, stationery, chocolate and toilet items etc) without needing to leave their camps. This was especially welcome for those based on the more remote airfields and army camps abroad. For the Royal Navy, although those in shore bases were easily accommodated, for ships at sea a special need was required. So on each warship, room was made for a canteen run by civilian staff who “lived in” with the crew, similar to staff on a liner, the number depending on the ships complement, usually one for the Corvettes, Frigates and Destroyers and up to six for Battleships and large Aircraft Carriers. When the last war was declared on the 3rd September, 1939, to avoid the civilian staff who were working in an active war zone being shot as spies if captured, it was vitally necessary to put them into uniform. Therefore, in the case of those serving for the Royal Navy they were put into “square rig” , i.e. suits with peaked caps wearing the appropriate Royal Naval Crown and Anchor badge. In the case where six staff were required on the capital ships, the manager was made a Chief Petty Officer, and the junior staff Royal Naval Canteen Assistants with black buttons on their jackets instead of gold coloured ones worn by the Chief and his deputy. The one staff required on the smaller ships was made a Petty Officer. So just before I was 16 years old I became a Royal Naval Canteen Assistant in H.M.S. Osprey. Being a shore base and not in an active war zone it was not necessary for us to be put into uniform. The staff at the Osprey consisted of the Manager whose surname I have forgotten but we always called him “The Boss”, a middle aged, kindly, married man, a chain smoker, with a first class maths brain. Bert, his deputy, was born and bred in Portland, again a nice chap, in his mid twenties, built like a Rugby forward and now, of course, little me. The canteen we ran was a similar size to a medium grocers shop and, in addition, in another part of the base, there was a recreational building where every mid-morning break we served the lads fresh doughnuts and cocoa (I can still remember the taste of those lovely crisp doughnuts!) and in the evening two or three times a week we served beer and soft drinks from the adjoining bar in the same building whilst the lads played cards or Tombola (Bingo to you.) It was during that time I began to smoke Naval tobacco and took a liking to milk stout! It was a very enjoyable working environment and extremely convenient being so close to home. During 1940 hit-and-run German bombers often raided along the coastal towns and ports and we had our fair share. Many a time we had to take shelter under the solid counter in the canteen and I still remember seeing the “dog fight” trails between our fighters and theirs above us.
About mid 1940 H.M.S. Cabot, a shore base in Bristol, was temporarily short of staff due to illness and I was sent there for about six weeks until their Assistant had recovered - I remember he used to try to sing but he had a lousy voice ! About the beginning of November the “Boss” came to see Dad to tell him he had received instructions from H.Q. to take over H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth a capital battleship that had just finished a six month complete re-fit in Portsmouth dockyard and was due to sail early in the new year to Rosyth in Scotland, prior to taking on the balance of the approximate 1,250 crew required and Canteen staff. He told Dad he wanted to take his own staff with him and assured him he would look after me if he agreed but as I was under 18 he would require Dad”s written permission. With Bill already serving in the Home Fleet on the battleship H.M.S.Warspite, understandably Mum was not very happy with this but as Dad explained I would be going with someone who would keep an eye on me and speaking from his own personal experience after 21 years in the Royal Marines, being a battleship always having its own escort it would be safer - and finally I would be called up in another 12 months anyway without any choice of service.
So Mum relented and Dad gave his written permission before taking me to the local Naval tailors just outside the Dockyard in Castletown to get fitted out with my Naval uniform. When I first put it on I felt really special. I was then taught how to give a Naval salute required when meeting or passing a Naval Officer or when boarding a Naval ship called “saluting the ensign” flown from the stern.
Although I was sorry to leave the family, at just 17 years old I was absolutely thrilled to think that as a Royal Naval Canteen Assistant I was going to serve on one of the most famous capital warships. So early in January, 1941, we all travelled up to Rosyth to start, for all of us, a completely new phase in our lives.

I had, of course, seen battleships before but always from a distance - the last time was the Review of the Home Fleet in Portland in 1938. But when our taxi arrived alongside the quay where the Q.E. was berthed the sheer size of her took our breath away. With her massive twin 15” guns and turrets fore and aft and four 4.5 twin guns either side plus numerous smaller armaments she looked quite impregnable. She also had a flight deck amidships for a Walrus spotter plane that could be catapulted off, and after returning landing on its floats, winched back on board.
The Boss had his own small cabin on the same deck and not far from the Canteen, ours were the next deck down and small in size with lockers along one side for our personal items, where some of us would sleep, and a table and chairs in the middle where all of us would eat. A few days after we arrived we were joined by three additional Canteen Assistants making up the complement required of six. Ray and “Curly” were from Hampshire and “Lofty” (6ft 3in) who spoke and acted like an ex Don.
After we had settled in, the hard work started getting “stored up” with all the items required having been ordered in from the main N.A.A.F.I. Warehouse by the Boss. It took us nearly two weeks before we had finished equipping the good sized Canteen with the Book Shop for stationery etc and the Soft Drinks shop we called the “Goffer” shop up near the boat deck. The hardest job was handling the back-up stock four decks down through very heavy hatches into quite a spacious store area. Finally we finished and the Boss allocated our jobs, Lofty to run the Book Shop, Curly the “Goffer” shop (serving two types of fizzy drinks and still lemonade kept cool with ice - the fizz supplied from a large Oxygen Cylinder - all the ingredients for making both stored in the shop) leaving Bert, Ray and me to run the main Canteen. Everywhere was a hive of activity with new hands arriving and Naval stores, food and ammunition being delivered and stored. Prior to our work we were able to get suitable working clothing from the Naval store and also some casual wear as we only needed our uniforms for going ashore.
Although part of the ships company, we did not come under any jurisdiction work wise. Providing we carried sufficient stores to accommodate the crew, opened at the agreed hours (which I seem to remember as “Stand Easy” break mid-morning, 2/3 hours lunchtime and about 3 hours early evening) and carried out our duties satisfactorily, we were left quite alone under the Boss”s eye. The exception was Action stations which I will deal with later.
After about 3 - 4 weeks we left Rosyth and sailed to Scapa Flow for 10 days sea trials to ensure everthing was working o.k. The first time out was very exciting for me especially when they did the speed trials - this massive ship ploughing through the waves was exhilarating. Then the gunnery trials including testing all the armaments including the huge 15” guns. I was pleasantly surprised I did not suffer any sea-sickness and soon got my “sea legs” adjusted to the marked up and down forward and aft movement of the ship.
During the sea trials we were given a choice of Action stations, either assisting in First aid in the Medical department or ammunition supply to the 4.5 anti Aircraft guns. I do not know what the Boss did but remember Lofty chose First aid and the rest of us the latter. We had a short “dummy run” to show us what to expect but more of that later. The trials proved successful and we returned to Rosyth to take on fuel and water and top up stores.
It was during the trials we got to know each other better - a fairly mixed bunch. The Boss,slightly built, who did all the ordering of supplies and stock control, leaving sturdy Bert to keep us in line. Ray, a bit of a tough nut in his early twenties and Curly slightly younger,quite inoffensive, he and Ray already close friends. Lofty I have described previously, again in his early twenties. We managed to get on fairly well which was just as well in the confined environment we worked and lived in.
Then one morning at dawn we sailed out of Rosyth and when well out at sea, the Captain informed us over the Tannoy system we would be joining other warships to make our way to our destination of which he would inform us later. However, as after a few days we were all issued with tropical kit (I.e. white duck trousers and uniform jacket, white socks - shorts - shoes and white cap covers) somehow or other we surmised it would be somewhere warmer !
You will have to excuse me if I use Naval slang being a language of its own. Rarely was anyone called by their proper name (therefore Lofty, Curly, Boss) and I was very quickly either “Shorty” or, which was rather nice “Smiler”. Toilets were known as “Heads”, floors were Decks and “Up Spirits” when the daily Rum ration was issued at 11 a.m. each morning - 1 part rum and 2 parts water for the lower deck personnel and neat for the Chief and Petty Officers. We did not qualify at that time but did later during the war. The Officers had their own personal supplies of spirits, Gin I believe being the favourite. Anything special they required from our Canteen, then they sent their stewards. Ships company were split into two sections, Port and Starboard covering the 24 hours in 4 hour periods called “Watches”. At regular times during the day orders were given over the Tannoy system i.e. “Hands prepare for leaving harbour” - “Hands to lash up and stow” (to tie up and stow away your hammock after sleeping). All the lower deck personnel had hammocks, the Officers had bunks in their cabins - Bert was the only one to use a hammock, the rest of us happy to use mattresses on the floor.
The crew on the whole were a friendly lot and we got on well with them and the Q.E. was a happy ship. Being the youngest I had to clean out the Boss”s cabin each morning which I did not mind doing. One of the hardest jobs at sea was getting up stores four decks below through the solid metal hatches. It was pretty tricky and we always kept our fingers crossed the hatches did not come loose and crash down due to the ship”s movement - fortunately they never did.
After being joined by several warships, including cruisers and destroyers, we sailed south, calling briefly into Freetown where I was persuaded by our young coloured “guide” who called himself Oliver Cromwell to buy a black wooden rather crude figure of a female which I nick-named “Charlie” and which stayed in my possession until I got married! We eventually arrived in Gibraltar, but about two days before arriving Bert complained of a severe stomach pain and on docking was quickly taken to the local hospital where they found he had appendicitis, so very unfortunately we had to leave him there to recover after his operation but heard sometime later he was given his own ship. On arrival in Gibraltar we put away our “blues” and changed into our tropical kit feeling far more comfortable. We had several nice runs ashore during our approximate weeks stay, to wake up one morning to find ourselves at sea having slipped out quietly during the night. We were then informed by the Captain that with the rest of the Cruisers and Destroyers, we were to escort a large and very important convoy of Merchant ships carrying vital supplies to the beleaguered island of Malta and armaments and ammunition for the 8th Army on arrival at our base - to be Alexandria. He also told us that the Q.E. would become Admiral Cunningham‘s Flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet and we must be prepared for considerable enemy action against this particular convoy.
The following day saw a large convoy assembled with Cruisers and Destroyers leading and flanking the Merchant ships and Oil tankers with the Q.E. stationed in the centre. There was a buzz of anticipation as necessary preparations were made for action stations. We were issued with anti-flash gear, white coloured special material you pulled over your head only leaving the face exposed and long gloves covering the arms and hands - we had, of course, already been issued with life belts well before. This was to be our “baptism of fire” and, as it turned out, one of the most important convoys we took part in in the Med.

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