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My War at Sea: Onboard HMS Southampton, HMS Warspite, HMS Pytchley and HMS Nubianicon for Recommended story

by marbleSealion

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Frank Jerram
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 April 2004

1940 – 1945: MY WAR AT SEA

At the end of 1939 I had said farewell to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth and in January 1940 set forth to join my first ship, HMS Southampton, a cruiser of 10,000 tons undergoing a short refit at South Shields on the Tyne. We then sailed to Scapa Flow, where the Home Fleet was based, and then, for me, the war began when we sailed to patrol the Iceland-Faroes gap; this was to prevent German raiders breaking out into the Atlantic.

Our main enemy was the weather which was universally terrible but I suppose it was a good way to break one in to a sea-faring life.

In the spring, the Germans invaded Norway and we were the first ship to spearhead our Forces who landed there; we arrived at the port of Harstd, near Narvik, where we disembarked some six hundred Scots Guards. Thereafter we patrolled the area and I can quite clearly recall an attempt to re-take Narvik, watching Polish tanks (who were on our side) advancing towards the town as we laid down bombarding fire.

In the end, we were the last convoy to leave Norway and, very luckily for us, were twenty four hours behind HMS Glorious and two escorting destroyers who ran into two German pocket battleships and all were sunk.

Thereafter, events moved very rapidly and my ship was sent down to the Thames Estuary as part of the counter invasion force following the evacuation of our army from Dunkirk.

At one point, two hundred German bombers passed overhead returning from a raid on London and the Admiralty wisely decided it would be more sensible for us to be stationed further north so we were deployed to the Humber where we remained at short notice until the invasion scare diminished in the autumn.

We were then despatched to the Mediterranean where things were hotting up and soon found ourselves in action against the Italian fleet at the Battle of Spartivento where we managed to protect our convoy which got through safely.

Early in January 1941, we were en route from Malta to Piraeus when we were attacked by German dive-bombers and suffered three or four hits; we were caught at a bad moment and about half our officers were killed and the ship was set on fire from the bridge to the stern; in due course we were unable to contain the fires and had to abandon our ship via an attendant destroyer; we were then transferred to HMS Gloucester who took us to Alexandria where I had two weeks survivor's leave spent at the house of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and his wife.
I was then appointed to the Admiral's flagship, HMS Warspite, and not long after that we were involved in the Battle of Matapan.

My main recollection of this night action is sheets of flame and the tremendous crash of our 15" broadsides which quite often did as much damage to our ship as to the enemy; doors were blown off their hinges, crockery broken and all in all it was quite an experience; my own action station was very close to the Admiral's bridge and in quiet periods I was able to hear him issuing his orders.

A month or so later we became involved in the evacuation of Greece and Crete and came under heavy air attack from German dive-bombers, one of which succeeded in hitting us with a 1,000 lb bomb, killing some twenty sailors.

Soon after this, Warspite left for America to be repaired and I made my way home to the UK in a Canadian Pacific liner, a voyage which took three months from Suez to Liverpool and which is described in my book "Tales from the Middle Watch".

Back in the UK I was appointed to a Hunt class destroyer HMS Pytchley, as a Sub-Lieutenant, based at Sheerness and protecting convoys going up and down the east coast from the Thames to the Firth of Forth. This was a very different climate and atmosphere to the Mediterranean; the winters were bitterly cold, the North Sea is comparatively shallow and the tides are strong.

Early in the war, a channel had been buoyed the entire length of the east coast to mark the route. The convoys formed up into a single line and would sometimes extend for five or six miles from front to back with one naval escort leading and another to chase up the laggards at the rear. Our main opposition consisted of German E-boats and mines, both magnetic and acoustic.

At about this time, the Americans came into the war (at the end of 1941 after Pearl Harbour) and a year later their armies were landed on the shores of North Africa, most of the transport thereto was British and the troops were landed in American built landing craft manned by the Royal Navy. So it was that I found myself in a converted Union Castle liner with some 800 American troops embarked bound for Oran; there was little opposition to the landing and our main problem really was coping with the wind and tides and manoeuvring our rather ungainly landing craft between the shore and parent ship. The Americans did not waste any time and once ashore were soon on their way heading east.

For me it was back to the UK and resumption of my convoy duties which continued without undue incident until the spring of 1944 when I was transferred to a Tribal class destroyer, HMS Nubian, based at Scapa Flow.

I can remember we were sent off to escort the Queen Mary returning from America with the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and the Chiefs of Staff. We made the rendezvous south west of Ireland and then it was absolutely flat out for home as Winston was in a hurry. Keeping station on the Queen Mary was quite a nightmare and when we finally limped into the Clyde and went alongside the oiler there was a puff of smoke from the funnel and that was the end of our oil fuel. We had also damaged some of our machinery during this high-speed dash as a result of which we were unable to take part in the D-Day landings off France in June 1944.

So I had very little idea of what was involved in the D-Day landings and it was only thereafter that I realised the magnitude of the whole operation. Meanwhile, we were employed on local convoy escort duties in the south west approaches to the UK and I then had a spell in a training cruiser at Rosyth teaching naval reservists about to get commissioned.

However, as the war in Europe drew to a close so events were hotting up in the Far East and preparations were being made for a landing on the mainland of Japan using large numbers of American built landing craft; these would largely be manned by reservists with a sprinkling of regular officers and I was one of the latter.

So on a fine spring morning in 1945 I found myself in a train heading for Falmouth which in those days had a branch line from Truro. In due course we sailed for Gibraltar but when we got there the atom bombs had been dropped and the war was over. So we headed back home and many of the reservists then left us but my own naval career was to continue for another twenty five years.

And so, with the war over, what were my feelings and emotions during those long five years? In 1940 it was undoubtedly fear; fear that the Germans would invade England and kill my family and friends; fear for my own life once I was subjected to bombing in Norway and thereafter when it seemed that every day was likely to be my last.

Then there was extreme fatigue brought on by lack of sleep; at sea one never got out of one's clothes; in harbour one tried to catch up but, remembering that I was in the 18-21 age group there were conflicting demands on my brief leisure hours, so it was off to the dance and to hell with tomorrow. It must also be remembered that total war means twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

Finally, communication with home; there were no mobile phones in those days so it was hand written letters only, sent by surface mail which meant there were long inevitable delays in getting news from home. At times one felt very lonely and the arrival of mail on board was always a great event and woe betide anyone disturbing a fellow mate reading his letters from home.

Finally, it must be remembered that the events I have described here took place well over sixty years ago and over that period of time memory can be slightly misleading.

- oOo -

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Message 1 - War at sea

Posted on: 11 April 2004 by Harry Hargreaves

Interesting indeed. Memory can, as you say, be misleading. The convoy route on the east coast was not marked by buoys, this would have been suicidal, the convoys were not in single line, they were usually in two columns and once clear of the Wash sometimes were put into three columns to shorten the protective perimeter. I spent three years on this coast on convoy duty so I can understand details of this area were not as ingrained in your mind as in mine.

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