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Wartime experiences of Derek Ashcroft extracted from his autobiography part two

by CSV Solent

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CSV Solent
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Derek Ashcroft
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19 August 2005

This story has been added to the People's war website by Marie on behalf of Derek with his permission. Derek fully understands the sites terms and conditions.

Having become a member of the Fleet Air Arm I was posted to Dunfermline, I don’t remember the station name, where I was kitted out with winter long johns and other thermal clothing and a pith sun helmet. Whether to confuse me or the enemy I not sure. We were all convinced we were being posted to Arctic Convoys of which we had heard only too much. As it turned out I joined 835 Squadron which had been allocated to H.M.S. Chaser; a converted ‘banana boat’ and sent out on Atlantic convoy duty. She was based at Gareloch on the Clyde and we went on board by train and lorry while the aircraft, Swordfish, flew in while we did our sea trials in the Clyde. She was fitted out with bunks rather than hammock space and I can recall that mine was right next to the hull and one could hear the sea buffeting against the side in anything but the calmest weather. We did one turn out in the Atlantic on her, sailing out with a convoy halfway across the Ocean and then returning with another to the Clyde. Our job was to see that the radar fitted to the Swordfish was correctly aligned so that they could home back on the ship after a patrol.
After that first trip we were then posted to H.M.S. Nairana, another cut down ex-merchant vessel This time we had a mess with hammock space, a much more comfortable way of sleeping, although one had to ‘lash up and stow’ each morning. This became the pattern for the next year or so, sailing out of the Clyde, picking up a convoy and escorting corvettes and setting out westward across the Atlantic. Each time we hoped we would finish up in either Canada or the States where everything was plentiful or so we were told. Unfortunately we would wake up one morning and find that the sun was rising in a different direction and we were heading south with a convoy bound for the Mediterranean.
The sum total of my visits to foreign parts while in the navy was Gibraltar. Interesting enough for the first few occasions where I could practise my Spanish but, what with the restrictions on where one could go on the Rock, a little boring after those first few times. My time at sea lasted from about January 1943 to May 1944. Coincidentally my father was stationed in Gib during his time in the RNAS during the First World War.
Although the Battle of the Atlantic was swinging our way by this time, there were still some exciting moments. We still dreaded those calm moonlit nights when convoys were sitting targets for U-boats. They used to gather in wolf packs and I can remember the pipe going and the message coming over the tannoy. This is the Captain speaking. I have just heard that we have a pack of five U-boats ahead of us. Good luck, everyone. We used to scramble the Swordfish and waited nervously for the next report. The corvettes, both English and Canadian, used to rush around the convoy dropping depth charges whenever they picked up a sonar echo.
On one occasion one of the planes launched a torpedo at a submarine on the surface and sank it and the corvettes used to claim their successes. The reverberation of depth charges going off used to thud through the relatively thin hull of the Nairana. Not very comforting when one was below in the workshops. But there were losses among the merchant ships and nothing was worse than hearing a dull thump and to know that somewhere out there a ship had just been torpedoed. It was worse at night as the glare from a burning tanker especially lit up the sky and silhouetted all the ships. Everyone scattered and then it was a problem rounding them all up again.
Landing a Swordfish in rough seas on a small carrier was not easy and a lot of our work was to readjust the radar aerials on the wing struts of a plane, especially after we had spliced two bits of an aircraft together. This was generally done back in the Clyde when the wings from one ‘pranged kite’ were put on the fuselage from another. This was the occasion of my first flight. Ailsa Craig that feature of the Clyde estuary made a perfect homing target and threw up an excellent echo blip on the screen.
On this particular occasion I was detailed to the checking flight and see that the aerials were correctly aligned and that the aircraft could home in on the carrier out in mid-ocean. The radar equipment on a Swordfish was in the observer’s cockpit, open to the sky and behind the pilots. The Naiana was streaming full speed into the wind and we took off. It had been arranged that I would do the radar check first and then hand over to the pilot for the rest. We did various homing runs on Ailsa Craig and checked the different ranges on the screen. The radar had a large rubber visor on the screen to cut out light and so one did one’s test with eyes glued to the screen giving instructions to the pilot by the intercom.
I completed my part of the task and said ‘over to you’ to the pilot. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the manoeuvres he was going to put the plane through to see that the wings etc would stay stuck on! Swordfish were nicknamed ‘Stringbags’ not without reason! I think we performed virtually every acrobatic trick known to any pilot before he was satisfied that all was well. Loops, rolls sideways, slips etc etc. Then to cap it all we came down fairly fast towards this minute speck of a ship. Mind you, ‘fairly fast’ for a Swordfish is relative! When you land on a carrier there is a tailhook which catches on the arrester wire and pulls you up sharp — it does too! Having done that, any flight afterwards was mere child’s play!
What other memories — standing at the taffrail and seeing the sun set — dolphins playing around the bows — bringing a hand of green bananas back from Gib and hoping we would get back to the UK before they ripened. On occasions our work room had a very ripe smell to it! We used to hang them up in the dark behind the work benches. We were now building up to the invasion of Europe and the convoys back consisted of the landing craft and supply ships used in the landings in North Africa.
In the summer of 1944 I was made a Petty Officer and posted to the Naval section at an RAF station at Wroughton near Swindon. Again our job was to prepare and fit radar to the new aircraft being brought into service. The main aircraft was the Buccaneer, a top wing monoplane of all metal construction in which the observer’s cockpit consisted of a large plastic bubble on either side of a narrow seat. It took a bit of getting used to sitting there and seeing the ground almost directly beneath you. It was a much faster plane too and you came up on your target almost before you were ready. Wroughton is perched on the edge of the Marlborough Downs and we used to use the former railway line which linked Swindon and Marlborough and which ran in a straight line south from Ogbourne St George, for our home runs.
We were at a small naval section with a Lt Cmdr Stewart in charge and for some reason I was appointed Transport Officer. At that stage I couldn’t really drive, although I didn’t let on. I used to take the 15 cwt Bedford truck out on the perimeter track and practise. Having sat next to my father all those times I thought I knew how. It didn’t take too long to master the Bedford truck but I then had the task of collecting the Wrens from their billet at the bottom of Wroughton Hill and bringing them up to the airfield. This was in a 3 ton truck with a gear lever back between the two front seats. Not easy! But no-one refused to travel with me! It was a bit disconcerting with the Wren Officer sitting in the seat next to me. However the RAF officer who issued driving licences seemed to think I was competent and issued me with my first driving licence. It has stood me in good stead ever since.
I was at Wroughton through till after VE Day. While we were there we had a very loose discipline in many ways and some of us used to go down to Swindon and help out at the repertory theatre there. Among the cast was Beryl Cooke, later in TV with June Whitfield and Terry Scott and Dick Bentley who starred in radio with Jimmy Edwards. We used to help out as assistant stage managers and occasionally, such was the shortage of men, take small walk on parts.
Swindon at that time, was mainly the railway town of the GWR and there were visiting shows which performed in the railway works recreational rooms. If you can imagine it, my first introduction to ballet was Swan Lake performed in such a venue, and with a chorus of very ageing swans on a creaking wooden planked stage! It was odd that there was I in the Navy and came home on leave to Kent to be met by flying bombs and tip and run raiding aircraft. There seemed much more risk there then in Wiltshire!
In the August of 1945, I was moved on to Guilford. I’m not quite sure what we were doing there. We worked at Guildford Technical College, there were about four of us and I think we were supposed to prepare materials for lessons. All I can remember doing was dismantling old Navy radio sets, wonderful teak cases and huge glass valves and copper wire. We used to build our own radio sets from the bits and pieces. I don’t remember ever seeing any of our stuff actually used except by us! We worked ordinary school hours so I had nearly every weekend free and used to go back to Tunbridge Wells — steam train along to Redhill and Tonbridge and then change for Tunbridge Wells. I had a Christmas leave in December 1945 and then tragedy struck in the New Year. Mother went down with pneumonia in the January. She had had rheumatic fever when young and her heart was not strong. I came back on compassionate leave to see her but she died the week afterwards in the Kent and Sussex Hospital.
I completed my war service at Guildford and was demobbed on the 26th July 1946 back at Warrington. I kept my kit bag, toolchest and hammock, all stamped with my name and number How I travelled home from the north with all that and my demob gear; complete with trilby, I do not remember! My No I uniform, denuded of its badges of rank, became a very serviceable dinnerjacket for those occasions when required. Young Conservative Christmas balls at the Spa Hotel if I remember rightly! Well, we were all young once and I certainly didn’t imbibe 14 pints. My hammock mattress was well used at Scout camps over the next few years, but I am getting ahead of myself.

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