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A Slice of Autobiography (1939 to 1946) — Part 2

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Philip E. Marshall, Lieutenant Commander Scott, Lieut. Commander W.J. Moore, R.N.R., Captain Walker, R.N., Petty Officer Cox
Location of story: 
Bristol, H.M.S. King Alfred, Lancing College, Worthing, Sussex, Brighton, Ailsa Craig, Tobermory, Western Isles, Scotland, Freetown
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 August 2005

HMS Whimbrel 1943

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Philip E. Marshall, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

A Slice of Autobiography (1939 to 1946) — Part 2

Philip E. Marshall

Our year's compulsory sea-time under the "Y" scheme was curtailed when Londonderry was despatched to Bristol for a major refit, sailing up the river Avon and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge into the heart of the City, watched by an admiring audience, though the effect was a little spoilt when we knocked a chunk out of the wooden wharf. That was an occupational hazard for the Captains of "small" ships; they were up to three hundred feet long, but too unimportant to be offered the aid of tugs. I believe most Captains hated "going alongside", just as many drivers hate trying to park a car in a tight space - and a ship cannot reverse easily, or use brakes, like a car. Inman hit the boom when entering St, John's, Newfoundland, in thick fog; and Inman, well that is a story for later.

There was not a great deal to learn in Bristol dockyard, and I see from my service dates that we were sent on the Officer Training Course only ten months after joining Londonderry. Lieutenant Commander Scott wished us well in his most affable manner, and one member of our Mess declared that he certainly would not accept orders from any of us if we met in later career. Luckily, I don't think we did. Truly, it was a difficult situation for both the "ordinary" crew and for those marked out for Officer Training. I realise now that, on an unhappy ship, we would have been bullied unmercifully; on Londonderry the tone was set by the Captain, and sustained by the Petty Officers and older seamen.
"Sticks", the three-badge Able Seaman (rather like the Lower Deck equivalent of a "passed over two-and-a-half” i.e., never recommended, or perhaps never wished, for promotion to Petty Officer) was in charge of my watch on deck. He guided, instructed and protected all the raw recruits like a dependable older brother. I was reminded that life is not "fair", when Sticks, of all people, went home on leave and discovered that his young son had been drowned in a tank of water kept for air-raid purposes.
The "Y" Schemers took care to obey orders cheerfully and willingly, gradually accumulating "credit" marks with our messmates; I was in the sea-boat's crew, and grudgingly praised by the Cox ("Well, if you can't do anything else, you can pull an oar pretty good."). I blessed the days when I had actually enjoyed pulling the cutter up the River Tamar. We never had to pick up survivors or do anything heroic, but the Captain occasionally dropped a "practice" depth charge, and we had to pluck the stunned fish from the choppy, freezing Atlantic. I felt that I deserved extra Brownie points because I was allergic to fish; the other rowers were spurred on by the thought of a tasty supper to come.
Then, on one occasion, I took over a night watch, in port, for a mess-mate who had returned too drunk for duty. Finally, I volunteered to be one of the skeleton crew left behind on board ship in Bristol, while the rest went on fourteen days' leave. Perhaps that just about atoned for the time when I was asked, and agreed, to take the place of a Wardroom Steward for a few days; I felt that a change of company would be quite pleasant, and was startled by the hostility aroused on the mess deck. I was leaving US, and joining THEM, if only temporarily. One man, probably the same one who said he "wouldn't obey orders if we met", called me everything from a "lick-spittle" to a "queer", until brought sharply to order by the mess-captain. Others wondered sorrowfully how I could think of leaving the close comradeship of our group. It was a salutary lesson to me of the abyss that yawned, even on a "happy" ship, between officers and men, and the effort that would be needed to bridge it.
I learned a lot on the lower deck, of both practical and spiritual use. We had to wash and mend our own clothes, take turns to prepare the mess food, keep the place tidy and ourselves clean, and "lend a hand" whenever required; all good training for a teenager. Above all, we learnt to tolerate other human beings. I was unlikely to make a close friend of a mess-mate who would return from shore leave and go along the line of hammocks, swinging each one with a loud enquiry, "Anyone want a piss?" Nor could many of the group feel close to me, for I was a very reserved, non-smoking, non-drinking and non-swearing man. But there was common ground between the extremes, from which wiser young men could extend friendship in both directions. I slowly mellowed.

H.M.S. King Alfred.
Officer training was based in Lancing College, Worthing, Sussex, commandeered for the duration of the war and re-named H.M.S. King Alfred. There we returned to school desks for lessons in naval routine, navigation, signal procedures, and many other skills which I now forget. Other periods of time were spent in the buildings of Brighton public baths; the pool, I think, was empty and the only recollection I have of the instruction was that we spent every other night manning a machine-gun post overlooking Brighton pier, keeping a lookout for the German invasion fleet, though that danger was well past. Perhaps, with our own commando raids in mind, the authorities thought that the Germans might try something similar. Sometimes we were taken to a marina nearby to navigate a very small "ship" among other craft, and alongside a jetty. The instruction would hardly have sufficed for a future Captain of a 300 foot destroyer, but, although we did not know it then, many of our class were destined to be "Captain", and solely in command, of small landing craft heading for the coasts of Normandy and other places.
One week was spent in London, for what reason I forget, but I experienced one more example of "There's nowt so queer as folk". Four of us, trainee officers, were billeted in a small boarding house in Cromwell Road. The other occupants were the landlady and a plain faced, cross-eyed maid. After a day or two we became aware of a mysterious third person; we caught glimpses of a young man taking a breath of fresh air in the garden, usually at dusk, or later. He did not appear at meals, or any other times, though we felt he was a permanent resident.
There was a strained atmosphere between landlady and maid, and no wonder, for we learned later that the elusive young man was the landlady's son, a deserter from the Army; the unattractive maid, it seems, "fancied" him. Whether subsequent events involved treachery, threats, blackmail, or just nerves stretched to breaking point, we didn't discover, but there was a murder. Our informant told us that one woman killed the other, but, to our frustration, he could not tell us which. Just another little mystery.
A final week was spent amid the splendid architecture, and paintings, and quite luxurious living conditions (all meals served by white gloved Wrens) of Greenwich Naval College, to impress us with the pride we should feel at being Naval Officers. I myself was left with the uncomfortable feeling that, if regular R.N. Officers were moulded in this way, without the corrective of a year on the lower deck, they might come to regard themselves as an elite, far above the "common herd". One or two officers whom I met later did give me that impression, but we seldom met them in the "small ships" of the wartime navy.

Officer Training had been, necessarily, short and superficial. I became an officer on November 13th, 1942, just one year and eight days after leaving a comfortable family home, and an extra year after leaving school. All of us were still young, but those fortunate enough to have turned twenty could purchase their Sub Lieutenant's uniforms, jump on them to give them a suitably used appearance, and hope that their lack of experience would not be too noticeable. The unfortunates, including myself, were the nineteen-year-olds. We became Midshipmen, marked out by our lapel tabs and lack of rings on the sleeve. Our junior status was advertised. In the peace-time Navy the "Snotties" were as lowly as "fags" in a Public School.

Once again, I was very fortunate in my commanding officer, Lieut. Commander W.J. Moore, R.N.R., formerly of the Blue Funnel Line. A Merchant Navy Officer, transferred to the Senior Service for the duration, he was, first and foremost, a skilled seaman, the best I served under. He believed in running a smart ship, but Public School and Naval College had not left their mark on him; he was the Captain, the leader, but not "superior", and not a martinet. He took a keen personal interest in every member of the crew, officers and men, and especially, it seemed to me, his two young Midshipmen, to whom he was invariably polite.

The Captain, some officers, and key personnel had been with Whimbrel for a few weeks. The bird-class frigate, a little larger than Londonderry, had been built at Yarrow yard, on the Clyde, and was almost ready, complete with the most up-to-date submarine detecting devices. Ships like this, co-operating with aircraft of Coastal Command, R.A.F., and Fleet Air Arm, were to turn the tide of the Battle of the Atlantic. A group of similar frigates, led by Captain Walker, R.N., in H.M.S. Starling, gained world renown for its exploits in destroying U-boats, until Walker died of a heart attack, caused by complete physical exhaustion. The group that Whimbrel joined escorted convoys competently and successfully, but without outstanding feats or publicity. As usual, I was with the "quieter" group. Later on, Whimbrel was transferred to Captain Walker's command, but by then I was no longer on board. "Fate" seemed to decree that I should always miss the most dangerous situations; no six-day battle with a Wolf Pack; no Malta Convoy; no Russian Convoy; and when the invasion of Europe began, I was on leave, at home.
However, to return to January 1943. We were a new ship with a new crew. After acceptance trials, steaming up and down the Firth of Clyde, to Ailsa Craig and back, we were to proceed to Tobermory, in the Western Isles of Scotland, to "work up" at the Training School. In charge of that was an officer, famous if not notorious, for the ingenuity of the exercises he devised to probe for any weak spots among officers and men. It was our misfortune to carry out his tests in miserable wintry weather, with strong winds carrying bursts of rain, hail, sleet and snow. I will select a few highlights of our stay.
I remember taking a "landing party" in the whaler (small rowing boat) from the ship to a rocky islet. In lashing wind and rain we managed to get ashore safely, but I slipped as we re-boarded, banging my face on the thwart and causing my nose to bleed copiously. When we set off for our next objective, my oarsmen were having such a struggle to make headway against the gale, that I hailed the ship's motor boat as it passed by and secured a tow to the "enemy" position. At the end of a harassing day we were congratulated on our "initiative" in taking a tow, instead of being blamed for laziness; and my fortitude in carrying on when "injured" was noted, but not my clumsiness in tripping. Such was the thin line between success and failure in the Tobermory "tests".
Another day, in better weather, I was stationed on the quarter deck, though not in charge, when the Trainer used the ship's stabilisers in reverse, to induce a heavy roll. (I am still puzzled by the stabilisers, for they were more suited to a Cross-Channel Ferry, than a frigate, and I cannot remember them ever being used for their proper purpose, to steady the ship. Perhaps they were removed later.) As we were rolling, a depth-charge, the size and weight of a full beer barrel, broke loose and careered from side to side, crashing into fittings and bending stanchions. There was no chance of the charge exploding, as it was not primed, but, as the depth-charge party struggled desperately to secure it, the situation looked dangerous to me. So I reported to the Bridge, and suggested they should switch off the stabilisers. Black Mark! Not from the Bridge, but from the Gunnery Officer, who had been hoping to get things under control, with the Bridge Party none the wiser. He was my enemy from then on. "Bloody Middy!"
My final memory is of the ship surging along at maximum speed, presumably "chasing a U-boat" when the Trainer seized a life-belt, flung it off the Bridge, and shouted, "Man overboard". Even a frigate can travel some distance before orders are translated into deeds by engineers and helmsman; moreover, the turning circle must be at least half a mile, making it difficult to estimate when one is back on the original track, allowing for the distance the unfortunate castaway may have drifted on the wind and tide. A man able to wave his arms might stand half a chance, but our life-belt was a tiny object among the white horses, and we never saw it again, to the displeasure of the Trainer.

Perhaps our popular First Lieutenant (second in command) was in charge, that afternoon, or perhaps there were other reasons, for at the end of the course he "failed", and was removed to a less responsible post. In his place we were given a hard, ruthless, efficient R.N. Lieutenant, to show us how the ship should be run. Fortunately, he also stayed only a few weeks before, to everyone's relief, including the Captain's, I should imagine, he too went his way, but this time, no doubt, up the promotion ladder.
At last we were ready for convoy work, and once again started with the "soft option" of the Freetown run. The other Midshipman, whom I shall call "Dave", and I, were now given more interesting duties, in particular to be in charge of a motor boat each; he took the port one and I took the starboard one. These boats, about twenty-eight feet long, with a mid-canopy, could chug through the water at seven or eight knots, carrying a crew of three, apart from the unnecessary Midshipman, and about twenty passengers, perhaps a working party, or liberty men going ashore.
This was great fun. My Petty Officer, who might have been irritated at not being in sole charge of the boat, discovered that I was very willing to learn from his greater experience, and became my firm ally. On his advice I stowed a small anchor and a signal lamp, in the boat, which saved us from disaster when our engine failed and we were being swept away, possibly out to sea, by the fierce current of the Freetown River, earning me an undeserved compliment from the Captain. So the Petty Officer Cox, the Tiffy (engine room artificer, in charge of the engine), the Bowman and I made a cheerful team. We even cleaned and re-painted the boat on our off duty afternoons, an unheard-of sacrifice of "get yer 'ead down" time.
Dave and I were a contrast in styles. He was highhanded, if such a word can be used for a lowly Midshipman, and inclined to be reckless. In some situations he would certainly have outshone me; in boarding a floundering U-boat, for example, which one young Officer was called on to do. But in the routine chores, my crew and I thought we were more dependable.
Dave came back one day with damaged planks, and a story about a speed-boat which had recklessly barged past him in the dark. However, the "buzz" soon went round the ship that he had hit a mooring buoy, while demonstrating a racing turn around it. My crew agreed, first that I would not have been so foolish, and secondly that they would loyally have kept any such secret.
Some months later, a curious set of circumstances tested the two boats. On a voyage in the hot sun, a few inches of water should be kept in the bottom of the boats. If not, planks dry and shrink, and cracks appear. The First Lieutenant should have thought of this, or the Midshipmen, but we didn't, and probably didn't even know; ultimately the Captain excused us, accepting the blame himself. As he said to me when I did not want any praise for taking an anchor, "You're in charge, and you'll get the brickbats, so you may as well have the compliments."


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