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Two Men and a Model

by Harry Hargreaves

Contributed by 
Harry Hargreaves
People in story: 
Harry Hargreaves
Location of story: 
During the war at sea
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2127278
Contributed on: 
11 December 2003

TWO MEN AND A MODEL

After dinner, in my house, sitting around the table is the usual time, when satisfied by good food, drink and pleasant company when reminiscences start. Usually someone poses a question and the resulting discussion then wanders all over. Due to usually being the oldest one there, I am asked a variety of questions, mostly about the sea and the war. On this occasion the question being passed around was, “What incident or person do you remember most”. The replies were fascinating to listen to, everything from being wrongfully arrested for shoplifting to meeting an Italian guide who thought he was nature’s gift to the ladies. It came to my turn and I realised that what had been a passing casual incident to most of them, with me it had left a lifetime memory.

I started by saying, ”Actually mine is quite a long story and involves two men and a model.” I saw the men’s eyes light up at the thought of some sexy sailor’s story and I noticed a frown on the face of a couple of the women at the mention of the model. I tried to beg off saying it was too long and probably boring to everyone except myself. It was no use, they insisted I go ahead. So I did.

It was January 1941 and I had been given a pier head jump. This is when a sudden draft chit arrives and, with no time to do anything but pack your kit and get there you find yourself leaving one ship and walking up the gangway of another. My state of mind could be judged by the facts that since the war started the only leave I had was the four days after the evacuation from France . In addition I was leaving behind a brand new ship and going onboard a WW1 relic (or so in my bitterness I had already classed her).

. The Wallace was one of 3 destroyers built between 1917 and 1924 and classed as the Shakespeare class. They were intended to act as destroyer leaders to the V and W class destroyers, which were completed in the latter half of World War One. Four of the V and W served with the Royal Australian Navy and the remainder with the Royal Navy. They were called the V and W class because their names commenced with either V or W. They were armed for the type of war that no longer existed namely low angle guns and torpedo tubes.

They were small as modern destroyers go being only 1090 to 1120 tons but they had four conventional boilers that gave them a speed up to 33 knots, which was faster than the modern Hunt class escorts that were reclassified as destroyers when they entered the service in 1940. Fifteen of the V and W’s were converted to escort vessels by the removal of torpedo tubes and changing their guns to 4.4 inch High angle guns. They were outfitted with oerlikon guns 4-barreled .5 machine guns two Lewis guns and later, as they became available, Bofors guns.

Anti Submarine equipment (ASDIC) was added and additional depth charges and later depth charge throwers. Eventually RADAR was added, first known as RDF (radio direction finding). The additional equipment had, of course to be manned and the addition of men to carry out these duties resulted in crowded living conditions that were truly appalling. There was insufficient room to swing hammocks so men off watch had to sleep on the wooden tables, benches and the top of the lockers, which did double duty as seats.

Naturally it was impossible to spread out mattresses or blankets so they slept fully clothed even to their sea boots. Their outer garments would, on most occasions, be wet and the atmosphere in the mess, with all portholes closed, as was always the case at sea, the smell of food, the smoke from cigarettes and the ever-present odor of diesel oil is indescribable. Add to this a rough sea with water swilling from side to side under their feet as men clung onto anything handy to hold themselves in position and with new arrivals sea sick and vomiting before they could reach the upper deck and you have a living hell.

None of these ships had adequate capacity for drinking water and the distilling equipment could not cope with the long stretches at sea that convoy and wartime work demanded. They could not carry fresh vegetables for longer (in the case of Wallace) than four days. Cold storage for meat was restricted to four days. They carried one man designated as a cook, I say designated because his cooking capability was usually restricted to being able to boil water and make cocoa. The men had to prepare all their own food and take it to the galley with a wooden label attached which gave the cook directions on what the dish was supposed to be. His job was to cook it accordingly but the results would make a grown man weep if he had that emotional outlet but he didn’t. Food was a major problem due to the fact there was totally inadequate storage and, after four days at sea; a variety of tinned foods (and not much variety) was standard fare.

The officers were far better off from the point of view of accommodation This was not a deliberate act to favour them but simply a matter of design. The ship needed only the same number of officers as it’s original design called for and therefore there was adequate cabin space with proper bunks and a small wardroom. The Captain also had a small sea cabin directly under the bridge. Most Captains were fully aware of the indescribable conditions in which the ship’s company were living in and tried in many ways to alleviate it, always conscious of that thin borderline between discontent and mutiny.

It was a miserable rainy day when the transport dropped me alongside the gangway of the Wallace. She was lying alongside the old timber jetty in Rosyth. The first person to greet me as I crossed the gangway was the Coxswain. The Coxswain is the senior man on the lower deck and can make or break the moral of the ship’s company depending on the type of personality he has. In appearance he was about five foot six in height, barrel shaped but obviously all muscle. His hair was full and fair with grey streaks at the sides. His complexion close up was ruddy with the fine lines created by sun, sea and wind. His eyes were the blues you see in Delft china. The laugh wrinkles gave a quick insight into his personality. I can describe him so clearly despite the many years that have passed. He was one of the men that more than met the criteria of whom I remembered most.

He told a couple of men standing by to take my gear to the Chief and P.O’s Mess. Turning to me he told me that the Captain wanted to see me the moment I arrived onboard. I was a bit puzzled at this but of course I had to go along with the Coxswain. We made our way back aft to the Captain’s cabin. He had two cabins, one forward immediately under the bridge for sea time (and a cramped space it was) and the more spacious one back aft near the tiny wardroom. When we arrived and were introduced in the very formal way as befits the service, he asked the Coxswain to leave and told me to sit down.

This was a bit unusual, however I did as I was told and for a brief spell we studied one another. He was a tall man, over six feet with a head of thick black curly unruly hair. He had the kindest deep blue eyes with a rather pale complexion and, despite the ever-present laugh wrinkles he looked extremely tired. No wonder, they had just arrived back from convoy duty up and down the East Coast. “They said you were rather young, but I must admit I never expected someone who looked like a schoolboy”. he said this with a smile which robbed it of all offence.

I discovered during the conversation that I had had two predecessors who had proven totally incompetent. Not, as he emphasised, their fault but one had never served at sea as a Yeoman having qualified in the reserve and the other had left the service 15 years before and was totally out of touch. He explained that signals and maneuvering in response to signals was not his strong suit and this had lead to difficult situations and long delays in carrying out orders. Everything had to be found in the appropriate book then read and hurriedly digested before taking action. “How are you with this routine” he asked. I assured him I was confident I would have no problem. Our time together was to prove that there never was a problem.

I went to the Chief and P.O’s mess where the Cox’n introduced me to the rest of the mess. All of them much older than myself and they were, as I found out, good people. I certainly did not realise it at the time but in the last hour I had met two men whose faces and expressions would live with me for the rest of my life. The Coxswain, know familiarly as Cox’y was named, Walter George Philips, the Captain was Lieut. Comdr. Heywood-Lonsdale. These two men from totally dissimilar backgrounds had established a rapport that had to be seen to be believed. There was no departure from the protocol that governed life in the Navy. Each treated the other exactly as R.N. discipline lay down. Yet, there was an ease, an unspoken bond of the kind that is established as history tells us on the battlefield.

We sailed the following day, and, as I found, into the most dangerous stretch of sea from the point of view of almost constant enemy action that ever existed. The East Coast convoys were well within reach of the German dive-bombers and low level bombers. In addition the German E boats operating out of Holland paid their nightly visits. If the orders called for us to enter the channel to pick up ships for onward escort the guns from Cape Gris Nez would welcome us in and escort us out. The explosion of fifteen-inch shells around the convoy did not induce a sense of comfort at all.

It was during the first attack the realisation came to me that this was no ordinary situation, if being attacked by dive bombers could be referred to as ordinary. The alarm bell, pushed by the O.O.W. brought the ship’s company to action stations. The Captain moved over to the voice pipes leading to the wheelhouse as the O.O.W. announced to the wheelhouse all future order for the control and maneuvering of the ship would come from the Captain. Within seconds a voice emanated from the voice pipe “Coxswain has the wheel, sir”. “Dive-bombers, I think Cox’n”, said the Captain. I thought this a bit unusual. In my previous ships the Coxswain simply followed orders without being informed of the type of threat.

The Captain’s guess was correct and coming in high on our starboard bow was a V shape of nine JU85. The order to open fire Barrage firing was given and with the cacophony of sound that only two-twin four inch guns can make the black cotton balls exploded directly in front of the formation. In those days we had no ear protectors so, today, hearing aids are essential. I learned that this technique of barrage firing as soon as they were in range prevented them from following the orderly laid down bombing plan of lining up, in single file then peeling off in turn to bomb the selected target.

As they scattered to avoid flying through the barrage, the port and starboard lookouts kept up a steady stream of reports on their whereabouts. It was, at this time I witnessed the understanding that existed between the man at the wheel and the Captain. There was no hurried shouting of orders, only an almost conversational tone. The acknowledgement from the Cox’n which was a repeat of the order followed by the report of its execution was given in the same unexcited tone.

The scattered aircraft now made their individual attacks and the real battle started. Wheel and engine orders that rapidly changed the course of the ship as the Captain anticipated the attack pattern of the aircraft. The ship heeled over at an acute angle answering the helm and the engine to change from the course the aircraft was anticipating. The machine gun bullets tore a long line of foam in the water and in the centre the bomb exploded where we should have been. This devilish dance persisted until the aircraft finally withdrew. All this had taken place in a matter of a quarter of an hour although it seemed to me to have gone on for ages.

The first I realised that it was over was hearing the Captain say, “Well done Coxswain”, to receive the reply “Aye Aye Sir”. This pattern persisted and, over the next year I observed these two men, at their best when in action yet, in between, cooperating on running a ship, that, despite all the trials and tribulations, was a happy ship. There were dozens of instance when, I am sure without this rapport, we would have suffered badly. The consensus of opinion of the rest of the escort force was that we bore a charmed life. At a Convoy conference, held when special ships or circumstances are expected in the convoy, I heard the merchant ship captain designated as Commodore say to another Captain when he heard that Wallace was the escort. “That is great, he not only defends but attacks but for God’s sake do exactly what he tells you.”

One day, lying alongside in Rosyth Coxy announced a new project to keep our mind occupied. We had embarked on many such projects, everything from preserving meat in wooden barrels as in Nelson’s times to competitions such as who could produce the most useful household article with scrap material found onboard. I won that one incidentally by making a clothes hanger out of the side of a corned beef box and a piece of brass piping left over from some repair job. I still have it. This new project was far more ambitious. He wanted us to build a model of the ship to scale and correct in every detail. Each one of us given the responsibility for some part of the model.

He was a humorous but hard taskmaster and as time passed it was obvious that he wanted as near perfection as he could get. He would inspect each item critically and, if it did not pass muster, he would hand it back to the unfortunate and say “Try again”. It took many weeks to finish the model in between bouts of action, rough seas and other interruptions. The model, when finished, looked to us all as a splendid effort. I suppose professional model makers would scoff at that but I would like to see them improve on it in between bombing and E boat attacks not to mention the shelling.

It became obvious that Coxy had known something we had not known. Three weeks after the model was finished the Captain cleared lower deck and informed us that on arrival in port he was leaving the ship for another appointment. There was deadly silence at this announcement followed as we dispersed by much groaning. It was an awful blow. The Coxswain told the shipwright to make a secure case for transporting the model. That afternoon he put it to the vote that we should present the model to the Captain. The result was a foregone conclusion.

Two days later the Captain announced he would be visiting every mess to say farewell. He arrived at our mess and shook hands with each of us and expressed his gratitude for our unstinting support. The last one was the Coxswain who was standing with his back to the covered model. You could see that this was an emotion charged moment as they shook hands. The Coxswain turned and uncovered the model and presented it to the Captain. It was a moment I can never forget, for the first time I saw the Captain taken by complete surprise. He had to turn away to hide the tears that came unbidden to his eyes. With a final handshake he left and the shipwright followed him carrying the model to be put in the case he had made.

Some sixty years later, when writing a book about these times, I was repeatedly asked by readers “What happened to the model.” I decided to embark on a search, that, to be honest, I thought would be fruitless. The Captain had died shortly after the war, far too young but the war took its toll. I traced the family and learned that his daughter Amanda had married and was living in Beamsley Hall , Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire. She was now Lady Hartington. I wrote to her and to my never-ending delight she replied saying the model was in her possession. I was able to give her a brief background and, with unfailing courtesy she answered my every question.

Lady Hartington has now had the model completely restored, and, in addition, had a plaque attached giving it’s origin. The model is displayed locally for all to see on such occasions as the anniversary of VE day and Remembrance Day. As I write I have a framed picture of the model in front of me. The two men and the model, as I told my audience, are my lifetime memory.

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