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15 October 2014
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A "Bolshie" Royal Navy Reservist (1)

by ageconcernbradford

Edward Walker & friend in Alexandria 1942

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Edward Walker
Location of story: 
Bradford, West Yorkshire, North Atlantic, Middle and Far East
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 August 2004

This story was submitted to the People`s War site by Alan Magson of Age Concern Bradford and District on behalf of Edward Walker and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site`s terms and conditions.

In the summer of 1938 I was disillusioned with work and decided I would be an itinerant -just doing sufficient work to exist so I could wander around the country to "see how the other half lived". To prepare for this I stopped drinking tea, having butter on bread and generally eating very simply. Mother thought this proposed vagrant lifestyle was a mistake and persuaded me to join the R.AF. as my friend had done. So, the next Saturday, I went to Leeds to enlist, but en route came to the Royal Navy Recruiting Office and stopped to look at the pictures and leaflets in the window, whereupon a Chief Petty Officer appeared and "conned" me into joining the Navy.
And so life in the Navy began. It was horrible. If I had had the guts for it, I would have refused to finally sign on the dotted line and thumbed lifts back home from Chatham. But pride got in the way and I tried to make the best of it.
I do not remember anything from that time until early 1940 when I was drafted to ELMS. Wolsey - an old banger of a First World War destroyer. I remember the first time I saw a dead German close to. We were on North Sea convoy duty and were often attacked during daylight by German fighters and bombers, and by night by 'E'-Boats - German torpedo boats. The latter were often tied up to buoys marking hazards, wrecks and sandbanks, waiting for convoys to pass. Occasionally, planes were shot down and E-Boats sunk by shellfire, leaving dead Germans floating, one of which was hauled aboard and just dumped on the afterdeck.
In the early summer, Wolsey featured in the evacuation of a quarter of a million troops from Dunkirk, which was one of the major events of the early war years, but I missed the first part of it. I was at home on leave when it started, and telegrams were sent to us ordering our return to Portsmouth. I decided to have another day with my girlfriend Gwen before returning and was bunged into detention on my arrival at the barracks in Portsmouth, pending dispatch to Dover to rejoin Wolsey.
In the spring of 1940 when we were escorting a convoy down the East Coast, a dreadful fog developed. We lost contact with the convoy and the other escort vessels, since Aldis lamps were of no use and we had to maintain radio silence, so we proceeded southwards very slowly. The following morning brought no relief, with visibility still down to a few yards. The Captain decided to turn landwards and an Able Seaman was detached to carry out soundings so that we did not run aground. After some time, the end of a pier loomed out of the mist and the vague shape of a man could be seen. The Able Seaman called out "What place is this?" Came the reply, "Bridlington." It is easy to imagine how the chap on the pier would relate this tale in his local public house that day and whenever he had a different audience, as we did when any reference was made about our Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve navigating officer's ability.
Later that year, I was bored with life on the Wolsey and volunteered for submarine service and was soon drafted to Chatham Barracks and, as usual, left the train at York to visit Gwen and, - surprise, surprise - got away with it. The draft to Gosport for submarine service did not materialise. Instead, I was sent to Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex, where a motor launch was being built, to complete and test the wireless equipment. I was in lodgings for a few weeks in Burnham which was on the German bomber route to London, and bombers who had not been able to identify targets used to jettison their bombs on the way home, so it was often quite noisy at night.
When our sea trials were completed, we became an escort vessel on Channel convoys. This was worse than the East Coast, since we were also in range of German shore artillery some of the time. One advantage was being based at Dartmouth - a wonderful place for country walks and pubs with rough cider at 4d per pint (one third of 5p), a few of which resulted in a peculiar cross-legged walk and an urge to sleep on benches or tops of walls.
The next event I remember was being sent to Wallsend when H.M.S. Welshman, a huge three-funnelled high speed minelayer with the appearance of an ocean liner, was nearing completion. After the sea trials, we were based at the Kyle of Lochalsh on Skye again, so back to daytime walks and then night-time high speed dashes to lay mines on the approaches to ports in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.
Towards the end of the year I took unofficial leave to see Gwen and noted the passing of Christmas whilst doing 42 days detention. Monday to Saturday we trotted round an assault course with a full pack, ignoring snow and rain. On Sundays we were marched round the barracks with occasional spells of running, then had a break for a visit to church, where the Chaplain said a prayer and then read war news from several Sunday newspapers, then back to marching back and forth until lunchtime. In the afternoon and evening, we were allowed to stay in our Nissen huts and write letters and read, the only reading matter being the Bible. After several weeks of charging around the assault course I became extremely fit and quite enjoyed the latter part. Then back to Chatham Barracks and another draft to relieve a Petty Officer Telegraphist on H.M.S. Mashone which was on escort duty for Russian convoys and was expected to be at Scapa Flow by the time I got there. But it did not arrive and we soon learned that it had been sunk and the chap I had been sent to relieve was not among the survivors. So back to Chatham, but this time I got off the train in York and walked and "thumbed lifts" to Shipley and spent a little time with Gwen. Happy days! Then back to Chatham and a draft to H.M.S. Hursley, a Hunt class destroyer nearing completion on the Tyne at Wallsend.
In the spring of 1942, we received an issue of tropical kit and got ten days leave, so it was obvious we were going abroad for anything up to three years. In fact, I did not see Gwen again until mid-December 1944 and we were married on the 30th December. The time on H.M.S. Hursley was quite peaceful for a while. We spent a few days in the Azores and Ponta del Garda, then to Freetown in West Africa, and for some undisclosed reason, a few days anchored in St Helena in the South Atlantic - Napoleon's last resting place. From there to Cape Town where my friend and I were joined by two Australian soldiers (from a troopship en route to the Middle East as we were) who had "acquired" a Jeep for a tour of the city. After a while the Aussies found this boring and drove the Jeep up the Town Hall steps and abandoned it, to the cheers of assorted Servicemen. So we left them and had a trip to Winburg where we drank a fair amount of brandy-and-something. I don't remember the journey back to Cape Town and the ship, but apparently I spent the next three days snoozing on the deck in the wireless transmitter cage until we arrived at Durban, where we had an enjoyable afternoon sightseeing and spent the evening in the open-air cinema with beautifully castellated stone walls, drinking gin-and-something, apparently part of the normal service.
Then to a port in north east Africa, which may have been Mombasa or Kilindini the adjacent port, where we indulged in a twelve course meal. I cannot remember what we ate but it lasted for two hours and cost a large amount. From there to Aden in the Red Sea, where a seaman died from sunstroke and his effects were auctioned on the foredeck the next day, which apparently was normal practice, and the sum raised was sent to his widow. The journey through the Suez Canal was pleasant - the Bitter Lakes were very salty which enabled one to float with minimum effort. We spent a couple of days in Port Said sampling what passed for beer, then on to Alexandria, where we were based.
Life was pretty boring then, since most of our patrols were incident free until we embarked on an evening excursion with H.M.S. Bridge, another Hunt Class destroyer, to shell a place which I think was called El Adem which was being used by E-Boats. We started shelling and a couple of E-Boats came out of the darkness and loosed off a couple of torpedoes, one of which blew off the forward deck ahead of the bridge of H.M.S. Bridge, and the pair of us gave them best and returned to Alexandria. Bridge made her way to Canada, where the front end was re-built and her crew had a wonderful time for several months.
Some time later, we were escorting H.M.S. Coventry with another destroyer following the raid on Tobruk (which was a key port for German supplies for General Erwin Rommel's army in the Western Desert). Apparently, the Long Range Desert Group had attacked Tobruk from the landward side, two Tribal Class destroyers and a number of motor launches and Motor Torpedo Boats had landed several parties of Marines during the night and were now acting as anti-aircraft cover just off the coast. At exactly 11 o'clock the following morning a German "dive bomber" came "out of the sun" and dropped a cluster on the Coventry, which destroyed the engine room and started several fires. (All three of us had new radar detection systems which should have alerted us to the danger but did not, and the Coventry had been re-fitted to be an anti-aircraft cruiser with all the latest equipment for the detection and shooting down of enemy aircraft).
The Tobruk raiding parties also had an unfortunate time, losing one destroyer and several motor launches on Motor Torpedo Boats and there were a great number of casualties. The surviving destroyer joined us in the early afternoon and, after the survivors had been taken off, she torpedoed the Coventry and joined us to return to Alexandria. Not long afterwards, German aircraft began bombing us. Our combined gunfire kept them high but there were countless near misses with shrapnel peppering the ship's sides. I had a particularly rough time because the Oerlikon guns on both sides of the lower bridge did not have their restricting guards arranged so that the arcs of fire were clear of the aerials. Consequently, after a while our aerials were shot down. Each time this happened I had to rig new aerials and on several occasions the planes returned whilst I was up the mast and the gunners opened fire. Eight 4" guns, two Oerlikons and one multiple pom-pom blasting away at close quarters is an experience to be avoided. I was deaf for two days and it was weeks before my hearing returned to near normal.
Towards evenings, the Tribal Class destroyer was hit by bombs and stopped. The other Hunt Class destroyer collected survivors and we took the Tribal in tow. For the remaining hours of daylight, relays of bombers played target practice with us, since we could not take effective manoeuvring to distract their aim, so both of us had a number of near misses. Soon after dark, the Tribal began to sink, so we collected the few crew left on board and cast her adrift. The following morning we docked in Alexandria for repairs to the ship's sides, which was expected to take a week and were given four hours leave. FOUR HOURS!! Sod this for a game of soldiers, says I, and took four days. Bliss! On returning to the ship I was duly "weighed off' and discharged from the ship and given 14 days cell punishment in Canopus Barracks in Alexandria and lost my only ever Good Conduct badge, which was worth 3d per day (just over Ip), but money in those days was worth vastly more than what it is today. The punishment was postponed because the ship was due to be fitted with an Infra Red signalling system (which the dockyard workers were not prepared to complete, since it entailed climbing out to the two ends of the yard arm with nothing to hold on to, whilst fitting the two Infra Red units without adequate lifting gear), and I was the only one on board who would fit them. So I was confined to the ship until the units arrived, but had no duties, so just loafed about and went sailing in Alexandria harbour in the ship's dinghy, with the ship's Signals Officer - a South African who was nearly as "bolshie" as I was. I was often surprised by the tolerance of some officers who seemed to be aware that none of the punishments they could inflict were going to trouble me at all, and often just gave me a verbal lashing - an attempt to activate my conscience. What conscience?
After a week or so, the units were delivered and duly fitted and I was discharged ashore with all my gear. The first seven days in cells were bread and water days, the bread being an enamel dinner plate covered with broken ships biscuits as hard as could be, and half a pint of water in an enamel mug at 7.00am. The biscuits had to last until 7.00pm the next day, but a further mug of water could be had in the evening. The cell was roughly 9' x 5' with a 2' square opening with a few bars across it on the outer wall near the ceiling. The "bed" was a 6' x 2' wooden array on the floor with a rounded wood block for a pillow. Seven days of the biscuit diet were followed by three days of normal barrack meals before reverting to biscuits and water. The only hard part was resisting eating the whole of the biscuits at breakfast time and saving some for lunch and supper.
After the session in cells, I joined the normal barrack routine awaiting draft for a week or so, then an Army Captain appeared asking for volunteers for Combined Operations. I was the first to sign on the dotted line and a few days later started training to be a member of a Forward Observation Party in the Bombardment Group attached to the Eighth Army - the Desert Rats. This was a matter of being put ashore secretly, usually in the hours of darkness, and finding our way unobserved to a suitable place from which we could observe enemy activity and not be detected by the enemy. There were four of us in the party; an Artillery Captain and Lance Bombardier, myself and an Ordinary Telegraphist. We carried a Wireless Transmitter and Receiver Unit (suitably waterproofed since we often had to make wet landings), so that when a suitable target presented itself, we could send a message to a ship in the vicinity, which would soon be able to shell the target. We would transmit the map reference of the target and the ship would fire a ranging shot, which we would correct, 'up' or 'down', 'left' or 'right', for following shots until the target was "straddled". We'd then call for "Fire for Effect", when the ship would fire a salvo and hopefully destroy the target. This wasn't as simple as it appears, as all the messages had to be encoded before transmission.

Life in the Western Desert was centred on eating 'K' rations - tinned food - and brewing up endless cups of tea and making countless Victory V cigarettes which were free and not restricted in numbers to keep the troops "happy"? During the day it was hot and sticky and water was rationed, only to be had as tea, since it was heavily chlorinated. We fought a losing battle with endless flies - a break in the skin went septic and erupted. "Gyppy tummy" - violent diarrhoea and dysentery were commonplace. It was only bearable because of occasional forays to coastal areas, where we could swim and, after several months, a few days leave back in Cairo or Alexandria, where the Jewish ladies formed an organisation to feed and entertain the troops on leave.
There were many independent small units similar to ours initiated by Winston Churchill, which did what they were designed to do - tying up large numbers of enemy troops in scattered locations. It started with the Long Range Desert Group, which spawned the Small Boats Squadron that operated in the eastern Mediterranean Islands and often used caiques (the Greek fishing boats) and dressed as fishermen in raids on the Greek islands. The most famous of these units became the S.A.S.

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