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ML238 of 25th ML Flotilla, Royal Navy

by ERNIESGIRL

Contributed by 
ERNIESGIRL
People in story: 
Ernest George Wishart
Location of story: 
Med
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A3303569
Contributed on: 
20 November 2004

Ernie Wishart 1

WORLD WAR 2 - ML238 OF 25TH ML FLOTILLA, ROYAL NAVY

ERNEST [ERNIE] GEORGE WISHART’S ACCOUNT [as told to his daughter]
Joined Navy 1941; awarded DSM on 10.12.1943.
Ships served on -
15.3.1941 to 21.4.1941 - Royal Arthur - stoker
22.4.1941 to 9.6.1941 - Pembroke - stoker
10.6.1941 to 3.9.1941 - Pembroke - MM[FM]
4.9.1941 to 12.9.1941 - Attack - MM[FM]
13.9.1941 to 19.10.1941 - Hornet - MM[FM]
20.10.1941 to 14.10.1941 - Skirmisher 2 - MM[FM]
15.10.1942 to 31.3.1943 - Cormorant [ML 238] - MM[PO]
1.4.1943 to 31.3.1944 - Hannibal [ML238] - MM[PO]
1.4.1944 to 28.1.1945 - St Angelo [ML 238] - A/ Ch. MM4cl[PO]
29.1.1945 to 26.5.1945 - Hornet - A/Ch.MM4cl[PO]
27.5.1945 to 7.12.1945 - A/ChMM4cl[PO]

I joined the Royal Navy on 14th March 1941. When I went for my medical I was interviewed by an officer in the RAF and by one from Army REME and both wanted me to apply for their units as I had engine experience, being a motor mechanic to trade, and they were short of mechanics. So I applied for the RAF and waited for 5 weeks. At last I got a letter telling me to go to Skegness [Butlins camp] HMS Royal Arthur as a mechanic. It surprised me somewhat but after seeing how the country was run I thought this was just another accident. I did my first training as a wireless operator, then as a stoker. Then after 5 weeks someone in the office must have found my papers and I was sent on a course on coastal forces engines in which I passed my exams. After passing exams as a motor mechanic I was put on board one of the Motor Gun boats in charge of the engine room as Petty Officer and after being on a few different boats I landed on board the Senior Officer of the Flotilla's boat. I discovered that I had been chosen for his boat as he was looking for someone whom he could upgrade to Chief Motor Mechanic and checking my records he discovered that I had attended a Grammar School. A funny twist, as Kirkwall only had one school and it was called a Grammar school. Now I was not aware that the words Grammar School should mean anything special until my skipper entered me to take exams for promotion to Chief M/M. I was not aware of why he wanted me to become CPO. It only presented itself to me later when I heard him speaking to other officers saying that his M/M was a Grammar School pupil and naturally he was a CPO.

I spent approximately 6 weeks training at Skegness and Gosport in engine machine shop and repairs, etc. and on 2nd ML Flottila as PO M/M. I was then sent to Portland as maintenance staff. From there I was sent to Pembroke Docks, Wales, to pick up 336 as their M/M had gone sick, then with 336 Tobermoray, Stornoway, Oban, etc. Then I was sent to Sandbank Dunoon as spare M/M for 25th Flotilla, then to ML 238 [Lt. Cmd. D Arnaud] where we sailed out to Gibraltar with extra tanks on deck. I was in Gibraltar until the North African Invasion in November 1942 and when the ships moved into the Mediterranean we moved with them.

[In 1941 I was sent on a course on marine engines to a place called Cobham in Surrey, England. I think I was there about 4 weeks. Now these weeks were the most crucial times, which paved my whole life, and it is all down to a little girl called Petula Clark. One weekend my pal and I set off by bus to visit the next village, called Esher, as we had heard that there was a cinema there. When we got off the bus and discovered the cinema would not be open until evening, we decided to have a walk around the village. Now Esher is quite far inland, so two sailors walking around caused heads to turn. We heard a band playing some music and discovered there was a fete in the village green. The music stopped and the announcer spoke through his microphone saying that the next song would be sung by a little girl called Petula Clark. Can let your mind think what two sailors would do in these circumstances, when there were lots of girls eyeing us up? We decided that, rather than stand to hear this small girl sing, we would chat up a couple of girls and the one I steered for eventually became my wife.]

People have often asked me what was the most thrilling episode I had during the war. It is funny, now, looking back. It was not so much the bad times one remembers, but the pride of being at some place on the way to try and defeat one's enemies. Just such a time happened to me one afternoon in the Mediterranean. I had the good fortune to be the Petty Officer Motor Mechanic on the flotilla leader's ML. We had sailed the 8 MLs out from Milford Haven to Gibraltar where we stayed for a couple of months. We saw quite a few ships arriving so we thought that this was another convoy to relieve Malta, which did not cheer us up, as one knew the problems that this entailed. So one afternoon we set sail from Gibraltar hoping we would turn right and then sail west but alas we turned east and into the Mediterranean, whereupon the skipper announced to us all that we were taking part in an invasion on the north African coast at Algiers. Our job was to act as navigation for the landing craft who had to follow us in to the beaches and to be extra submarine detectors on the way. So we sailed all that night and the next day until about 4 o'clock in the afternoon when we saw, in the distance, dozens of ships. They seemed endless - as far as one could see there were ships. As we caught up with them we discovered there were either 4 or 5 lines of shipping all steaming line ahead. We received instruction from the convoy leader that 2 of our 8 boats should sail up between each line and take station ahead of the convoy, then lower our submarine dome and listen for submarines. This was the most moving time as far as I was concerned for as we roared up between these huge merchant ships, all laden with soldiers on small landing craft hanging on every side of the ships, the soldiers all cheered us and waved their caps. It made the hair stand up at the back of one's neck. One was so proud. The actual invasion was another story.

One time when we were based at Algiers we had been out on patrol and returned home again when we got a signal that a merchant ship had been torpedoed further out in the Med and that we had to about turn to pick up survivors. A destroyer had managed to tow the merchant ship to a sandy beach and cut it’s tow rope, so the ship was settled, slightly on her side, on sand in deep water. We took our boat right alongside the merchant ship and picked up its few remaining crew. The merchant ship was full of tanks, trucks, guns, etc. but our crew were more interested in whether there were any potatoes on board, as we hadn’t seen potatoes for so long. Some of the lads managed to haul a load of 1cwt bags of potatoes into the merchant ship’s lifeboat, which we towed off. Some time later the skipper asked me if the engines on our boat were OK as, although his gauges showed we were going fast, we were in fact making little headway at all. I checked everything in the engine room and it seemed OK so I went aft to check on the lifeboat full of potatoes we were towing - it had sunk and we were still towing it along the bottom of the seabed. It was no wonder we were making no headway! When we got back to Algiers harbour half the crew slept on board while the rest were on sentry duty. The skipper shouted down, rousing me out of my sleep, to ask if there was a tide in the Med or not. I sleepily replied there was no tide and he said that he had just come on board and the boat was lower than it had been a few hours ago when he had left the boat and he wondered why. I was beginning to wake up a bit more and decided to go and see what he was talking about. I leapt out of my bunk and dropped the 6 feet down into salt water. I knew the boat was a wooden boat so it had not been mined so I went up top to see what all the commotion was about. The rest of the crew and many others were all standing around watching the boat slowly sink lower and lower into the water. I dived back into the boat to see that the water was half way up the engines. I knew the 1/2 inch seacocks were all over the boat but didn’t know which one, if any, was leaking or where the water was coming in from. I found a 12-foot length of hose attached to headgear, put this on, and dived further to make a search. It was pitch black under the water but I eventually found the cause was a leak on the port side and the sea water was rushing in. I managed to get the crew to give me any towels, clothing, rags, etc and I dived back down and managed to push this into the hole and nailed wood and iron over this as a seal. It worked and we then had to find a way of pumping the sea water out. The crew went off to look for a pump of any kind and came across an Army fire truck and crew who spent many hours pumping the boat out and she started to rise again out of the water. I then had to take all the engines out of the boat. I then found all the dozens of batteries and barrel of caustic soda we had on board! I had been diving for hours in a mixture of battery acid, caustic soda and sea water! I lost all the hair on my body except for my head where it had been covered by the headgear with the hose attached. I later found out that our boat had hit something at sea [a wooden batten or something] which had knocked the sea cock right off the boat.

Whilst in the Royal Navy, for some reason I was recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal [DSM]. I don't know why. I didn't think I had done anything so important as to warrant receiving the DSM.

I was in Algiers for a while doing patrol work up to Bone, Phelipodle, Bougie, etc. and we had our stern knocked in and went to Oran for repairs, then to Gibraltar for slipway repairs. Then we went back to Algiers, then on to Malta, Malta to Sicily, Syracuse, Cotona, Malatro then back to Malta, Malta to Tripoli N/A convoy, empty ships and landing craft and did this trip 3 or 4 times. As I mentioned before we were called to lead in landing craft during the invasion of North Africa and had been assigned our boats to lead. We sailed through many lines of boats and were cheered by the army lads on board them. We were assigned the first fifteen craft, which were large cumbersome hulks with little or no navigation aids. It was pitch black and they followed our MTB to shore with the aid of a pushbike lamp manually held at the stern of our boat. Our Captain was so pleased that seven out of the fifteen made it - they never found where the others went! We then went back to Malta with urgent supplies to Sardinia [North] then on to Ajaccio [Corsica] and escorted an Italian tanker to Oran, then back to Bougie N/A, then to Malta, Malta to Brundisi, to Bari and based there for a while. On 2.12.1943 we were based in a small fishing village just next to Bari when Bari harbour was bombed. The ships and boats in the harbour were all sunk - including one, which had mustard gas bombs in its hold. Our crew and boat were sent in to pull out the men's bodies after the bombing stopped. [DAUGHTER’S NOTE - Dad would not talk much about this incident other than saying it was the most awful scene he had ever witnessed. The smell of mustard gas and other chemicals was overpowering and there was still dense smoke all around the harbour making it difficult to see far. Bodies and parts of bodies were lying all over the place, in the water and on parts of what remained of the boats. He and the rest of the crew had to grab hold of them whatever way they could and take them on board and to the shore. He also rescued some who were still alive but had been in the water for some time. This went on for hours. In the midst of all this chaos my father and the crew rescued a small monkey from a mast on top of one ship and they kept this on board the MTB for some time. It caused chaos on the small boat and whenever it got out through a hatch cover it sped to sit on the captain’s hat whilst he was wearing it! My Dad says the captain eventually ordered that the monkey be got rid of by one means or another but he cannot remember what actually happened to it.] We did more convoy and patrol work to Ancona, Ortona, etc., then on to Greece and Kithira. I was carried off ML238 on a stretcher with jaundice in 1944 and was in hospital on a small island in south Greece [Kithira], then sent to Italy Taranto Hospital for 3 months until January 1945. I was then sent back to the UK by Italian cruiser to Malta and the Empress of Scotland to Liverpool and had another 2 spells in hospital in the UK. I was discharged with a diagnosis of cholecystitus and came home to the UK and got married in July 1945 in Surrey.

We moved to Ripley, Surrey where I got a job as a garage mechanic and a year later our first daughter was born. Due to the war there were no prams available to purchase and you had to put your name down to apply for one as soon as you knew a child was on the way and even then it took about 18 months to get a pram. Our best friends in Ripley, where we were living then, were also expecting their first child so both couples applied for prams. Many months later my wife and her friend heard that their prams had arrived but they were at Aldershot base and they had to go and collect them. Aldershot was about 30 miles away from Ripley so I got our old car [named Bitsy due to the fact that it had been built by myself and my friend from various parts from other vehicles] and we took our wives to Aldershot. When we arrived we were shown 2 different prams and the women had to decide which one they wanted. After a lot of discussion they decided which of them they wanted and we then had to get the prams into the car. Bitsy had a soft top roof so we couldn’t put anything on the roof. I managed to get my wife in the back seat of the car with her friend sitting on her knee. Then I undid the handle section of the one pram and folded the handle back to get it on the front passenger seat. The other pram was wedged into the back of the car beside my wife and her friend. It wouldn’t fit completely and part of it stuck out of the rear door. I tied the door closed with some string and we managed to get back home in one piece. I worked as a garage mechanic in Ripley, Surrey for 2 years then took my family back to Orkney in 1947. The pram survived, came to Orkney with us, and was used again when our second daughter was born.

[Daughter’s note - I would love to make contact with anyone who remembers my father during the War]

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 -

Posted on: 20 November 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Erniesgirl

I read the story of your father's service in the Royal Navy with great interest. He more than deserved his medal.

You will find an account of the disastrous Bari raid here http://www.mapleleafup.org/histories/scislowski/bari.htmlAbout links

Best wishes,

Peter

 

Message 2 - ML238 of 25th ML Flotilla, Royal Navy

Posted on: 20 November 2004 by ERNIESGIRL

Hello Peter, My father says he does not know why he was awarded the medal as he did nothing that anyone else did. He did, later on, save his Captain's life when the ML was hit and sunk. He dived down intot he wheelhouse 7 times and eventually got his Captain, who was trapped, out and to the surface. I wondered if he was awarded the medal for that but the timing appears wrong. Unfortunately the records of the award are no longer available so there is no way of finding out.

I had read that report and many others re the Bari incident. It must have been the most dreadful thing to have witnessed. I know that my father used to have horrendous nightmares when I was a child and my late mother said he was reliving this incident at Bari each time. It had a profound effect on him and still does. It was difficult to get him to talk about anything about WW2 but over the years he has opened up a bit about specific incidents [mainly humourous ones] and I have noted them all down. I was hoping to make contact with any of his fellow crew, if still alive, and to see how they had fared over the years. I would also be interested to know if second generation [i.e. children of those involved at Bari] have suffered any common illnesses, medical conditions, etc. which may be attributed to the chemicals, etc. [goodness knows what actually blew up in the explosions as the USA never gave out the info of the true contents of those boats/ships] these people ingested through their skin and breathing them in.

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