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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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by Andrew Coleman

Contributed by 
Andrew Coleman
People in story: 
Michael Coleman
Location of story: 
The North Atlantic
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 November 2003

On the 12th of January 1943, there was a hurricane force storm in the North Atlantic, probably off the coast of Iceland and that is where His Majesty's Trawler WINDERMERE was hove to awaiting the storm's end. I know that because my father, Micheal , told me. Why is the date so accurate - because that was theday of my father's 21st Birthday. In the 1940s, 21 was as significant then as it is now, although unlike today, 21 also marked, in addition to a person's "majority", the age at which one could vote. In any event, my father's "key of the door" day was spent in the North Atlantic, aboard one of the many ex-whalers requisitioned for duty with the North Atlantic convoys.

My father came from a family of Liverpool seamen and it always seemed right that if he was to serve anywhere for his country, it was to be at sea. ALthough well educated, he attended St Edwards College in Liverpool, he intially harboured ambitions to be a Mersey River Pilot, although before his premature death in 1941, his father advised him not to go to sea. My Grandfater, whom I never knew, was aware that normal family life was imposible for a seaman and expressly forbade Micheal , his first born, to join a ship. But join one he did after his family was rocked by the outbreak of war and the sudden death of the head of the family. My father then realised that it would be his responsibility to provide for his now widowed mother and young sister. He owed a debt of duty to his country as well, therefore any thoughts of University and a life in teaching , were put aside for 5 long years. He joined the Royal Navy in 1941 and was trained as a "Sparker" or Wireless Telegraphist. He preferred small ships, he often told me and my 2 brothers. They were less impersonal and you could do different jo aboard in addition to your own and he liked that better than serving on a hige cruiser or battleship. In any event, as the only Sparker, he was very much his own boss, and that suited him as well.

Service on a myriad of corvettes, Grimsby trawlers and ex whalers only reinforced his view that his choice was right. Over the years he regaled me with his stories, he let me into his rollicking world of illiterate trawler skippers who could barely read a chart and yet were put in charge of minesweepers and corvettes, ex bank manager skippers who were too polite for their own good and the mean, arrogant Hull trawlermen who treated thier crew like dirt and yet wer the finest seaman afloat. He told me stories of lending the 1st Officer money because the enormous shared mess drinks bills from the wardroom always left Lt Binks poverty stricken, and this while he did not drinka a drop. He recounted days and nights spent on watch listening for a friendly shore station and of other,darker days spent hunting U Boats.

Of all these, the story of his 21st birthday and one other account of his service are the ones that define him and his war, for me anyway. Firstly let us go back to the 12 Jan. The storm had been raging for some time. It was also freezing, or more precisley, spray from the incessant waves were breaking over the ship's masthead and freezing on the mast top. Black ice in some forms can be inconvenient, or on roads and paths it can be positively dangerous, but to a small ship trying to stay head to the wind in an Atlantic storm. black ice on the mast tops was downright lethal. So on this day of all days , my father, as the solo Sparker and therefore responsible for the antennae on the mast head - had to clamber up the mast and chip the ice off, otherwise the ship was in danger of capsizing as the weight of ice unbalanced the ship. He never said how long he stayed up there, or how he chipped the ice off. All he ever said was"That was how I spent my 21st birthday!" Mariners of all types, sooner or later had to perform a chore similar to this . Ellen MacAuthur's tribulations in this regard spring to mind and yet I can only speculate as to how it felt to climb the mast of pitching small sip in an Atlantic hurricane.

The other story that , as I have said, defines my father and his war is the one were he (reluctantly) revealed that his esort flotilla had accounted for the destruction of a U Boat somewhere in the North Atlantic. He remembers that after a struggle lasting many, many hours, there were obvious signs that the U Boat had been sunk or irreperably damaged. There was a lot of oil and items of wreackage on the surface. He recalls that almost the entire ships company lined the rails and slowly, it dawned on all of them, that the U Boast was doomed. Unlike some later films, including the "Cruel Sea", sailors rarely, probably never cheered the knowledge of a successful "kill". That was how it was on this day. Once the relaisation of their success became apparent, the deck , lined with evry available man, was completely silent. After what seemd like sveral minutes, one of his shipmates said, "Rather them than us." That broke the spell and the now sombre crew broke thier vigil and went about their duties.

He had enormous respect for the Germans his enemy, al;though he wasconscious that htey had a common enemy, the sea, that turned the ocnflict into a priate battle. He hated Nazis and everything they represented and he saw the war as a fight for his country's existence. And yet, he regretted being pitched against a country and a people he admiredfor their industry, and yet the fight had to be joined. He marvelled at the bravery of the U Boat crews, a job he said he could never do. He knew better than most what their eventual fate would be and he only ever expressed admiration for the courage of his adversary.

Both these stories encapsulate how I have always perceived my father. He was strong, courageous but never reckless, acutley conscious of his reposnibilities towards his comrades, resolute in the fight but never vindictive. The enemy was to be fought, vanquished and then released. He never held grudges, he knew that but for accident of fate, he could be on the other sideof the battle. I have tried in my military career to do as he did, fight, if necessry, for those who cannot fight for themselves, be loyal to those who serve with me, and strive to treat any enemy with fairness and compassion.

In his life after the war, he realised his ambition to qualify as a teacher, delayed , as for so many others, by 5 years of serice i uniform. He brought that sense of resolution and fairness to the classroom and even if many were occasionally bored by his stories of the Navy, I like to think that his students and colleagues indulged him. His service was not without cost. As a wirless operator 5 years starining to hear those distant shore stations damaged his hearing irreperably. Not for him, the justice of financial compensation. He knew that he would eventaully go deaf, but he bore, outwardly at least, no ill will to the Service that robbed him of his hearing. I think he saw it as a fair price to pay for coming home whole and in sound mind, a ate not shared by 9 memebers of his 25 strong sixth form year at St Edwards College.

He died nearly 3 years ago, after several strokes robbed him of mobility. He died at the turning of the tide and it was while I stood igil over him that I knew that beacuse of him, I knew that on the 12 January 1943, there was a hurricane in the North Atlantic and he was there.

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