- Contributed by
- Surgeon Lt Commander L.G.P.Shiers
- People in story:
- Leslie Gordon Percival Shiers
- Location of story:
- Various locations
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 April 2004
It was about the month of October. I was exactly twenty-three years of age, I was newly qualified as a doctor and I was anxious to get out and get a job and earn some money after years of being a poor student. Accordingly I sought out the British Medical Journal and looked for an appointment as a locum somewhere. There was a vacancy in general practice in Coventry and so I applied for the post while the doctor was away for a fortnight and I commenced my first venture into the active practice of medicine. However, after a week of general practice I got tired of vaccinating babies and treating nappy rash and decided that general practice was not for me and I would become a surgeon.
In order to become a surgeon one needed a hospital and therefore I applied for a post of a surgeon at the local hospital and finally was given the job of Casualty Officer. This in those days was the lowest form of hospital life. Shortly after I had obtained the post, the clouds of war were looming and the Ministry of Health, fearing there would be dozens of bodies lying in the streets from bombing sent a memo to all hospitals offering the doctors there a permanent post for the next three years during which time they were assured they would not be called up for any of the armed forces. However the idea of being out of the war did not appeal to me and so I resigned my post and, as an unemployed doctor, decided to join one of the services. The choice lay between the Air Force, the Army and the Navy. I knew nothing about flying so that ruled out the Air Force, and I loathed walking and marching so that ruled out the Army and the one place left, obviously, was the Navy. How did one get into the Navy?
Well, I had a friend who had been at prep school with me who was a Royal Naval Lieutenant and I wrote to him and asked him what to do. He told me I must write a letter to the Admiralty and he kindly dictated the format. The letter would read
"To the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty. Sirs, I have the honour to submit my application for a Commission in the Royal Navy. I am twenty-three years of age, fully qualified as a doctor, I am a good swimmer and a keen rugby player. I have the honour to be your obedient servant".
In due course I received a reply which thanked me for my offer but pointed out that the Royal Navy was no longer giving short service commissions, that the RNVR was full and that the RNVSR, the Supplementary Reserve, was also full. However, they saw no prospect of an immediate conflagration but thanked me for my offer once again. Six weeks after receiving this reassuring message we were at war, the Germans having marched into Poland!
I was now an unemployed doctor and wondered what was the next move. In the town, there was a shop which had been turned into a recruiting office, and in the window was a poster of a fierce looking man saying "Your country needs you!". I decided that I must go into this shop and see how one got into one of the armed forces. I duly went into the shop and a scarey looking man with three buttons on his sleeve who, for all I knew, might have been an Admiral but I learned later was a Chief Petty Officer, barked at me and said "What do you want?" "Please, Sir" I said "I have come to join the Navy". He looked me up and down and said "Seaman or stoker?" The thought of shovelling coal in a hot engine room below the water line did not appeal to me and so I decided that the proper answer would be seaman. I therefore replied "Seaman, Sir". He said "Fall in there" and pointed to a queue of men standing outside an open door. I fell in, as requested. The column of men shortened, as each one went into the room. I peered through the open door and to my surprise I saw the man who was standing next to me and the one who had gone in just before me, were standing with their trousers round their ankles while an elderly grey haired man sitting on a stool was closely inspecting his private parts with the aid of a torch. I began to wonder if the stories I had heard about the Royal Navy were true. However, I decided I would not drop my trousers and have my private parts examined by a stranger, so I stepped out of line and went back to the scarey looking man with the three buttons on his sleeve. "I" I said "am a doctor". "You are a doctor" he said, "and I am Emma Hamilton. Now, get back there". Well, I had always remembered my father telling me that when addressing a member of what he termed the lower classes you could always put them in their places by saying "Now look here, my good fellow". So I said to this man "Now look here, my good fellow", his manner changed immediately. His face turned bright pink, indeed he was so suffused I thought it might be an impending stroke. However, taking of his cap, he tucked it under his arm and marched in to where the grey haired man with the torch was still inspecting private parts. He whispered something into this man's ear and the man came out and taking me by the arm said "My dear chap, are you really a doctor?" "Yes, Sir, I am a doctor, and I am at the local hospital". "My dear chap" he said "you should not be in here. This is for ratings". I explained that I had written to the Admiralty and they did not want my services, so how could I get into the Navy? He said to me "Write down you qualifications, your age and I will see that due attention is given to your application". This he must have done because ten days later precisely, I received a letter informing me that I must proceed to a house in Birmingham for a medical examination by one of their surgeons and agents. At that time I was very fit, training with the Coventry rugby team, and my only sins were an occasional beer after the match on Saturday and the best of three falls! I gave up these pleasures of the flesh and went into strict training, running a couple of miles each morning before breakfast and doing several press-ups.
In due course I arrived at the house in Birmingham and run the front door bell. The door was answered by a maid, dressed in the uniform that they wore in those days, "The surgery is closed, she said you have to come back tomorrow". I said "I am not a patient, I am a doctor, and I wish to see the doctor". "Oh" she said, and she ushered me into a large room where a lady was sitting by an open fire. She said "Ah, you are the doctor who has come for an appointment". "Yes" I said. "Well, I am Peter's wife, do come in and have a drink". "No, no", I said, fearing I might fail the examination if alcohol had passed my lips. "I won't, thank you very much". I just sat down and we commenced a little general chit chat when the door opened and in came a very large man who said "My God, what a shower". Then, noticing me, said "Who is this?". His wife replied that I was the doctor who had come for a medical examination prior to joining the Navy. He said "Have a drink". And I said "No, thank you, Sir". And he said "Don't you drink?". And I said "No". Immediately the atmosphere became a little chilly and, marching up to me, he said "Well, are you healthy? Have you got piles? Have you got an hernia?" I said "No". He said "Drop your trousers". Now, this was the second time I had been asked that and I really begun to suspect the Navy. However, I said "Sir, your wife is here". "She has seen it all before" he said. "She may have done, but she has never seen mine. Can't we go into your surgery?" "Oh, well," he said "if you don't have piles or a hernia that does not matter. So you are alright, eh?" Then he put a stethoscope on my chest and said "Take a deep breath", and that was that. I said "Aren't you going to test my eyesight?" "Oh, yes, yes, yes, of course" he said. And he marched into the surgery with the usual white card, propped it up against the wall, took me by the arm, marched me to the end of the room and said "Now read the bottom line". We were so far away from this card that I said "Sir, I cannot even read the top line". "Good God" he said "good God". I said "Can you read the top line?" Covering one eye with his hand and said "I can't even see the bloody card! How far away should you be?" I said "Six feet, Sir". "Six feet?" So we approached the card and I duly passed the test by reading the bottom line. He then said "Is there anything that you would like to ask me?". Having passed the test, I said "Yes, Sir, I would like to have that drink". Immediately the atmosphere thawed and we started to talk about rugby. Having learnt that I had played once on the sacred turf of Cardiff Arms Park, he informed me that he was an Irish international and late into the night we talked rugby and, between us, sank an entire bottle of Scotch whisky.
Two weeks later I received a telegram from the Admiralty which read "You have been appointed as Acting Temporary Surgeon Lieutenant to HMS Drake and will repair aboard that vessel at 0900 hours" and it gave at date just three short days away. Now, all over the country there were posters saying "Don't say where your ship is because Hitler is listening and there are spies everywhere". And how was I, in the middle of Coventry, to find out where HMS Drake was laying or indeed was sailing. Fortunately, the Chief Medical Officer had a brother in law who was in the Navy and who, in the next two days, was about to visit him. I told him my dilemma and he invited me over to meet this officer, who informed me that Drake was the name for a barrack - a stone frigate, it was the name given to Plymouth, and Raleigh the name given to Portsmouth". I thanked tthem both and two days later packed my few belongings including a set of golf clubs and a fishing rod and departed for Plymouth.
I arrived to see the streets literally packed with sailors and, approaching one of them, I said "Can you tell me where the barracks are?" He gave me the directions and I entered this very large building, crossing the square, which again was practically was sailors moving in every direction. I had been told that I should go to the Ward Room and stopping the nearest sailor to me I said "Can you tell me where the Ward Room is?" He said "What is your rank, Sir?" And I said "Surgeon Lieutenant". He straightened his cap, and stubbed out his cigarette before advising me accordingly.
I thanked him and walked over, in a cubby hole in the hall was another man in uniform with three buttons on his sleeve. By now I knew the correct method of address was to call him Chief because he was the Chief Petty Officer and I said "Chief, I have come to join the Navy and I am commissioned as Surgeon Lieutenant". I produced my telegram, which was the only form of identity I had and he said "You ought to go up to the Billiard Room, there are still places under the billiard table where officers are sleeping, because all the cabins are full". I duly went to a very large room in which there were four billiard tables and underneath all of them were sleeping bags. Just as I entered this room, I bumped into a very tall fellow who had two stripes on his sleeve, but one of them had obviously recently been taken off because you could see the gold thread hanging down. He said "Hello", and I said "Hello. What happened to your other stripe?" He told me his name was Miller and that he had been serving on a gun boat on the Yankgste, while his Captain was ashore he was entertaining a Chinese lady in his cabin when a Labour MP had come up quite unexpectedly to see what the Navy was doing. Subsequently there was a board of inquiry, which resulted in Miller losing six months seniority and the Captain being court marshalled. This was my introduction to naval discipline and also to the fact that the Navy drank gin and lime. I had always considered gin and lime to be a drink for tarts but Miller told me that it was to prevent them having the scurvy, which was why the lime was there. It was rather interesting that when I got to sea we always drunk pink gins rather than gin and lime in spite of the threat of scurvy.
I waited in the barracks for a fortnight, and each day all of us temporary lieutenants would go down to a box in the hall and look under our initials to see if there was any message for us. On the tenth day there was a letter addressed to me informing me I had been appointed as Surgeon Lieutenant to His Majesty Ship Weston, which was a ship in the destroyer flotilla based at Rosyth and I should join the vessel forthwith. I drew my railway chit, in those days officers were given railways chits, indeed so were the men, so you would travel free, and I went down to Rosyth. When we got to Crewe there was a great kafuffle and the train stopped while everybody got out. We were then told there was a bomb on the line further up and we would be delayed for some time. Whilst I was at the railway station, I bumped into a man I knew who had joined the Army. We had a drink or two together and then, when the scare was over, I went back to the train. I was carrying my suitcase and the train was packed absolutely solidly, people were jammed in the corridors. I managed to squeeze myself in between a crowd of sailors and I noticed, as I looked around, that just behind me the curtain of this particular compartment were drawn tightly and there were some scattered confetti on the floor. Being of a curious nature, I pushed over the door to see the happy couple and there, stretched out alone in the compartment, was an Army officer. “ Hello he said, you have rumbled me, would you like a bed”? I accepted his offer and closed the door and we, he on one bunk and me on the other, had a very pleasant journey all the way up to Rosyth.
On arrival I registered in an Edinburgh hotel and each day went down to the dockyard at Rosyth to enquire to the whereabouts of my ship. This lasted for a period of about twelve days, during which time I had made the acquaintance of a new rather agreeable WREN who was also staying in the hotel. On the eleventh day I failed to go to the dockyard because I was a little delayed in my room and, Sod's law being what it was, when I went down the following day, I found that my ship had come in to refuel and re-ammunition and was already back at sea. Well, there it was, and one must never question fate too closely, so another twelve days passed happily in this hotel in the company of this charming lady. At the end of that time, when I went down to the dockyard, to my dismay the ship had returned and I fell in to make my number. Having boarded the ship, saluted the quarter deck and being greeted by the sentry, I asked him where the Wardroom was and he directed me towards it. The ship was old, she was a sloop and this meant that, although she lacked the speed and the armament of a destroyer, she could stay at sea much longer, indeed while a destroyer would have to return for re-ammunitioning, and refuelling within the space of about a week, the Weston could stay comfortably at sea for three weeks at a time. Having entered the Wardroom I was greeted by the First Lieutenant who told me how delighted he was to see a real doctor. I asked him what he meant by a real doctor and, pointing to my wavy stripes as opposed to his straight ones, he told me that most of the doctors in the Navy who were regulars were really young disreputable characters who could not get a decent job ashore. Having received this welcome, I was shown to my cabin which was down a hatch aft between two sets of watertight doors and whilst we were at sea these doors were closed and I slept on the wardroom floor in a sleeping bag. When asleep, like all the other officers, I merely removed my shoes and kept my life jacket close by.
The sick bay contained two swinging cots and had an elderly sick berth attendant He did not like the First Lieutenant who had been acting as a doctor prior to my appointment and there was no doubt he was delighted to see me. It is a strange thing but in the Navy the sick berth attendant was known as the doctor and the doctor was known as the quack. That is the sailors' particular sense of humour. However, we went to sea and we were given a convoy to take out into the North Atlantic.
One terrible night, out of thirty-five ships filled with food and fuel we were escorting we lost thirteen to U-boat attacks. At this time ther yanks were not in the War but Mr Churchill made a trip to America where, by establishing friendly relations with the American President Roosevelt, he received the loan of fifty First World War American destroyers. These were fitted up with our RADAR which the Americans did not have (this, by the way, is an anti-submarine detection device which later on we passed to the French and then, unhappily, when France surrendered, it came to the knowledge of the Germans who very soon produced a locking device of great efficiency). However, instead of having two destroyers, or perhaps one destroyer and a corvette to shepherd a fleet of perhaps thirty merchant ships, we now had fifty American destroyers and we began to sink the U-boats to such effect that The German Admiral Doenitz called off his “woolfpack” unable to sustain the losses. Thus the whole battle of the Atlantic changed in our favour. Food and fuel had to come across the Atlantic arriving at Rosyth in Northern Scotland after traversing the Pentlan Firth It then came down through the North sea to the port of London. Our task in the Western was to shepherd the convoy of ships to their destination in London. The Germans standing on the beach at Calais could clearly see the movement of some odd vessels sailing in convoy towards Dover. And in a hope of avoiding the Stukas (dive bomber) these vessels had a Barrage baloon attached by a cable so that they flew some 100 feet above each vessel in the hope of trapping any Stukas making a dive bomb attack. The most dangerous part of the passage to London was off the mouth of the Thames estuary early in the war we had laid a line of mines about a mile off the English coast and through this narrow passage our vessels could move safely.
At night the Germans flew over the Thames estuary dropping magnetic mines which would lie on the bottom until attracted by the metal of the ship passing over them when they would immediately rise towards the hull. Having lost a number of ships to this device the backroom boys came up with a solution in which a long (deguassing gear?) electrical cable was laid right around the deck of the ship so as to neutralize her magnetism. However very rapidly the Germans devised another type of mine, the acoustic mine which was activated by the sound of passing ships propellers. To counter this, large vessels were towed out of harbour in the open sea before they started their engines. However the noise from the towing tug’s propellers resulted in the loss of a number of these tugs. At this stage the Luftwaffe came over night after night dropping mines into the Thames estuary the only method of counteracting this move was by using the flotilla of mine sweepers. These vessels towed rafts some laden with iron bars to simulate the hull of an iron ship and thus attract any magnetic mine over which they passed. However the sound of their own propellers often activated an acoustic mine e many of these tugs were lost.
Nevertheless sufficient fuel and food was getting through. These supplies of course coming from America had to cross the Atlantic avoiding if possible the German warships which patrolled these waters. A helpful America although not in the war, escorted these ships as afar as 23 degree west (half way across the Atlantic) We in the Western would sail out there to meet them and escort them safely to England. This journey travelling no more that 8 knots took some three weeks. Thanks to the reinforcement provided by the American destroyers we were able after each trip to have a week rest in harbour.
It was customary for The Medical Department of the Admiralty to give doctors after twelve months at sea in a small ship a shore job. Sure enough, a signal came through that I was appointed as a Surgeon Lieutenant to a motor torpedo boat based in Lowestoft. In due course I arrived in Lowestoft where I found to my delight that we were billeted in a cottage in the gardens of a big house. Actually it was the private dwelling of the owners of Bourne and Hollingsworth, the well known London department store. The senior officers slept in the house while we more junior officers were put up in the gardener's cottage at the back of the main lawn, behind the tennis courts. This we soon found had great advantages, because the Wrennery was next door although protected from the attentions of such junior officers as ourselves by some coils of barbed wire. It took very little effort for us to make a gap in the wire and there were some very pleasant evening spent in the company of these Wrens.
Now it must be remembered that the whole of Europe was occupied by the Germans and the fledgling pilots taking bombing raids for the first time were sent over usually to Lowestoft on the East Coast where, night after night, they bombed indiscriminately, sometimes causing dreadful carnage, especially one night when a bomb fell on the main hotel where officers wives, sweethearts and daughters were staying over a long weekend. There was very little we could do in the way of antiaircraft fire, all we could use were the first world war Lee- Enfield rifles, until one glorious day a Swedish anti-aircraft gun mounted on a moveable chassis came to us through the offices of Mr Winston Churchill and we managed to shoot down a German bomber in a raid over the North Sea.
However, after six months in this very pleasant appointment, I began to feel that I was really missing the war and as I had never been out East, I decided to go up to the Admiralty Medical Department and ask for a ship going East. In those days there was a rule that any doctor passing through London would call at the Medical Department of the Admiralty in Whitehall, would fill in the chit saying "On duty", "On leave" or "Request" when he would be ushered into the presence of an elderly Irish Rear Admiral Medical who would ask him what he wanted. I was duly ushered in and met the Rear Admiral who said to me "I suppose you want a shore job". I said "Certainly not, Sir, I have had a shore job for the last six months and want to get back into the war". He said "Very well, what would you like?" and I said "Well, I spent the winter in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Sir, I would like to go somewhere warm, I have never been out East and I would like to do that". He then consulted the sheet in front of him and said "We have a cruiser which will be leaving shortly for Singapore. Would that suit you as Second Doctor? She carries a Surgeon Lieutenant Commander and you would be under his orders as Surgeon Lieutenant." I said "That would do admirably, and a few days later I got a letter telling me I had been appointed to His Majesty's light cruiser Dauntless which was refitting in Portsmouth. After a few days' leave with my parents I went down to Portsmouth and in the dockyard, after some enquiries, found the cruiser Dauntless. I went on board and was met by a sub-Lieutenant who showed me my cabin. She seemed vast compared to my previous ship, good old Weston, and I had a birth in a larger cabin and what was really more of a hospital than a sick bay. The following day the Surgeon Lieutenant Commander joined the ship and there was no doubt that from the beginning we were not going to get on. He was an anaesthetist and had spent the whole of the war in a hospital when I had been flogging up and down in the North Sea and the North Atlantic. He was also rather fat, spending most of his time sitting in the Wardroom drinking gin and left me entirely to do the sick bay, which I did not mind in the least, as by so doing I got to know the ship's company much better than he did.
Ten days after I joined the vessel, we slipped and proceeded down the Channel, calling at Gibraltar, which we reached having traversed a very smooth and placid Bay of Biscay and because it is the duty of doctors in the Royal Navy to be in charge of the wine cellar, I had a pleasant, really very pleasant three days as a guest of Saccone and Speed the wine suppliers, drinking sherry whilst putting in the order for the whisky and gin as requisite.
Three days later, because the Mediterranean was too dangerous, we sailed for the Cape. In due course we arrived at Simons Town, which was the naval base close to Cape Town and there we were to spend the next three happy weeks whilst waiting for further orders and putting on extra anti-aircraft guns. Cape Town was a revelation to us all and indeed one would not believe that there was a world war taking place. There was no blackout, the night clubs were full, the local people were very hospitable, cars would come down to the dock and ask us if we would like to ride or play golf or swim and it was indeed a total, total contrast to those bitter cold winters in the North Atlantic. However, all good things come to an end and at the end of this brief but very pleasant respite we slipped and proceeded to go and join the fleet at Mombassa. This journey was round the Cape and up the whole of the east coast but first of all, prior to Mombassa, we were directed to Durban.
Durban was really every sailors' dream of home. It had absolutely everything: warm sunshine, splendid hospitality, excellent wine, and I was fortunate enough to meet an old shipmate of mine who was enjoying life very much in a shore job in Durban. He had a flat and a girlfriend and he soon introduced me to the delights of Durban in so far as his girlfriend produced a girlfriend for me and good time was had by all. At the end of three weeks we were ordered up to Mombassa where we were told that there was going to be an invasion of Madagascar and we were to join the fleet.
We set off to the great island of Madagascar, and it must be remembered that this is the second largest island in the world, Australia the first, and it also has at its northern extremities one of the greatest natural harbours in the world. The harbour at Diego Suarez could accommodate the entire British fleet as well as the German grand fleet. We arrived there in the company of the aircraft carrier Illustrious, the great battleship Warspite, a cruiser squadron, a Birmingham assault ship whose name I can’t remember and the Polish assault ship Spobeiski as well as four Australian destroyers.
It was decided that we would invade at dawn and, as it broke we were close up at action stations wearing anti-flash gear, with buckets of sand spread about the deck to cover any blood that might be spilled and we anchored off the entrance to the harbour. Madagascar was a French Protectorate and we signalled to the governor "We arrive as friends, we ask you to surrender so that any bloodshed might be avoided". We knew that there were some Vichy French in the island and so it was necessary to make this preparatory signal. The reply came back from the governor "My honour will not allow me to surrender". The Admiral in charge of the fleet was an Admiral Syfet and he made another signal shortly after dawn again requesting the surrender and again he got the same reply. He was decided to make one more effort and accordingly it was agreed that we would send in a high ranking officer and a white flag. The Captain of my ship was chosen and as British ships do not carry white flags, the Wardroom table cloth was taken attached to a pair of crossed oars and this was mounted on the motor boat which proceeded towards the shore. It is had hardly got two cables from the ship when the French opened fire with a machine gun. Immediately the entire fleet let go but hardly had got off more than two rounds before a Frenchman appeared with a white flag and hastily mounting the steps which circled the lighthouse at the end of the pier began to wave his flag. At this point an Australian destroyer went zooming past the lighthouse, let go of the aft turret and blew away the man, the flag, the steps and the top of the lighthouse. This brought the action to a close.
It was then agreed to enter the harbour, and my ship, the Dauntless, was chosen to lead the fleet in. I remarked to the navigator that this must be a high honour and he told me not to be so naive - it was merely that we were the oldest ship in the fleet and therefore the most dispensable, if the harbour had been mined we would be the first to get it and serve as a warning to any ship following us. In the event, we safely entered the great harbour at Diego Suarez where we were to remain swinging around a buoy for the next three months.
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