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15 October 2014
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Looking Back On Life

by graduateJonSimpson

Contributed by 
People in story: 
John Simpson
Location of story: 
Hertfordshire,Cambridge, RNVR
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
26 February 2005

I was still 17 when I went to Cambridge in January 1943, but, like all others in my age group I knew that I was eligible for military service at the end of the summer term, so which of the services would I choose to join. This presented no difficulties at all. Above all I wanted to survive the war and I realized that Hitler could only be defeated by a massive army attach across the channel. Casualties would be enormous. Also I had hated the uncomfortable uniform which I had been forced to wear in the officers Training Corps at school, so I rejected army training for the R.A.F. it was everyone’s favourite service but I some how doubted whether my reactions would be fast enough and precise enough to enable me to survive. So for me the choice had to be service in the Royal Navy.

So at Cambridge I had to volunteer for that. I suppose there were 120 other young men who had made the same choice at the same time. We were all lined up and graded for height and then made to race round a one-mile course. I just stayed in the second or third line till we were half way round the last lap when I put on a spurt which to my great surprise left me the winner. Years of rationing musy have worn off the effects of all that roast beef!

So I was in the Royal naval Division and it was made clear that the object of this was to train young men and to train them especially in developing officer-like qualities (OLQ). Apparently one either had OLQ or lacked it. OLQ was not well defined but I suspect that it consisted of a mixture of smartness and arrogance. I knew too that officers got paid more than ratings and that they generally had their quarters in cabins instead of having to share in the hurly burley of life on the mess-decks. So I set about developing, or at any rate displaying (since we all knew that bullshit baffled brains) O.L.Q. which time and self- confidence had helped me to nurture.

So at the end of my second term in 1943 I was instructed to report for duty to HMS Ganges at Shotley near Harwich, Ganges was what was termed ‘a stone frigate’ for she did not go to sea. She was a new entry training establishment.

Eventually however the time came for HMS Duncan to be out through her sea trials. The full complement joined the ship and she set of into the English Channel in quite stormy conditions. I was delighted to find that I didn’t seem to get seasick. The ship however didn’t fare so well, for going full speed ahead into a near gale caused her to heel over dangerously and she took a very long time to recover as her speed was reduced. So she went back into dock where her upper forward gun was removed and replaced by a weapon called a hedgehog. This was designed to make her a lot more effective against submarines, but less effective in engagement with surface vessels. The hedgehog fired a pattern of short range missiles over the bows of the ship, but the previous weapons used against subs had been depth charges delivered form the stern. Subs could be detected by Asdic, a directed sound beam transmitted by the hunting ship and which would bounce back to the transmitter from a submarine of course or it might come back from a wreck, a rock or a shoal of fish. If the skipper could keep his ship pointed at the target he could destroy it. With a salvo of hedgehogs fired over the bows. Previously destroyers had to rely on dropping depth charges over the stern which gave U-Boats valuable time and space in which to turn and dive deeper. But it was no easy thing to find them, for the ocean was a very wide, deep and dark place in which they could hide.

So the crew had to be drilled and practised in using our new destructive weapon. The leader of the Asdic team was an RNVR lieutenant, a very nice guy named Willett who was immediately christened ‘Ping.’ We were ordered up to the North Channel between main points of entry to British waters or North Atlantic convoys, and consequently one of the main hunting grounds for U-boats. One of these had sunk a tanker full of high octane spirit. It was the echo of this which our keen Asdic team picked up and identified as a deep submarine echo. The skipper confirmed this and ordered the attack. The hedgehog fired and second later the sea around us and the night sky above us were a mass of flame. We had found and destroyed the remains of the sunken tanker!

After this excitement Duncan was sent north to the beautiful port of Tobermoray which was a working up base for escort vessels. It was dominated and terrified by a remarkable character know as Commander Monkey Stevenson though not, of course, to his face, for in face and build he showed a marked resemblance to his similar ancestors. He had served in World War 1 and was furious when he was pronounced too old for active service in WW2. Instead he was put in charge at Tobermoray where he set about terrifying the officers and crews of all the war ships which came into the port. He visited us on our first days in. At about 0700 his launch was spotted by the quarter master heading in our general direction. Everything and everyone had been scrubbed and polished before-hand. The launch came alongside. He ran up the steps which had been rigged up beforehand, saluted the ship and at the top, whipped off his cap and threw it on the deck shouting, “It’s a bomb! What are you going to do about it?” Quick as a flash a tall able seaman nearby kicked it into the water. Straightaway Monkey shouted, “Man over board, Away lifeboats’ crew.” The boat was launched in double quick time and the precious cap recovered.

The crew of the Duncan left Tobermoray with feelings of relief, for after surviving all the antics of Monkey Stevenson they may have felt they had little to fear from the Germans. We also got formed into a flotilla known as EG (=escort group) 14 of fame, inconstant, Hotspur, Duncan, “Biggest boffins ever seen” as we sang at beery wardroom parties, when we were in harbour to the tune of “Through the night of doubt and sorrow” with words provided by Gunner Shaw. HW was a lovely chap who had served long on the mess deck and had been promoted to lieutenant the hard way. I got him talking about his time in the China station before the war. During a football match between his ship and a local team a dispute broke out and the Chinese referee ordered three of the Chinese team to be taken off and shot. Such was British supremacy then!

On my 19th birthday I thankfully cut off my midshipmen’s tabs and got a ‘Wavy Navy’ ring sewn on on each cuff instead. Somehow the jibes about the ‘lowest for of animal life’ seemed to become a thing of the past.

Our next posting after Tobermoray was north of the Faroe Islands close to the coast of Iceland. I was fascinated by their wild beauty.

Our Northern idyll was brought to an end when we were ordered south for Plymouth. One evening soon after we berthed there I was duty officer when a sailor from the duty watch banged on my door shouting that there was a rating on the tiller flat trying to hang himself. The tiller is at the stern of the ship and controls the rudder I dashed into the flat to find that a sailor had strung himself up through a ring in the ceiling and had then stopped the tiller motor. I whipped out my sailor’s knife and started sawing through till I cut it through and the sailor slid to the deck. Officers were issued with phials of morphine and as I reached in my top pocket for this the sailor gave me a double footed kick in the chest which sent me off him against the bulkhead. Help came from the wardroom and the man was overpowered and quickly taken off to hospital. Next day the ship sailed and I lost all contact with him.

The skipper had thanked me if I was ok. I told him I was thank you, but for some days I continued to see the dreadful outline of a hanging man in dark corners behind doors. Later when I left active service I told myself though I had never killed a German at least I had saved the life of one Englishman!

Such morbid thoughts were soon driven away by the 6am early new bulletin broadcast on the 6th of June, announcing that D-day had dawned and that among the vessels taking part on the assault on Normandy was HM Battleship Nelson (and a list of others. it was a little difficult to believe this because at the time I could see the Nelson tied up to two massive buoys in Plymouth harbour, but later in the day she went roaring up the channel in the direction of the straits of Dover. EG 14 followed her later. It was dark on the night by the time we reached the rendezvous. The straits were teeming with boats seemingly going in all directions with navigation lights dimmed. I suppose it was about 5am before we arrived at our designated positions off the Normandy beaches only to find that the ship that we were escorting was no the one we had started with! I somehow doubt whether the matter was ever reported to base.

For the next two or three nights we did the same thing, picking up a ship on the English side and escorting her to the Normandy side., although I am glad to say that we did not loose Anymore ships. By the third night the British were towing over parts of an entire floating harbour which was to be run up the beaches at high tide to speed up the process of landing troops, tanks, transport vehicles, fuel supplies and artillery. EG14 had a ringside view from about 5 miles offshore.

I don’t know how long it was before we were suddenly ordered to enter the port of Cherbourg, but the day was flat calm and fog was very dense. The port was reported to have been mined and the main dock to have been wrecked and booby trapped. So we made our way in dead slowly expecting to be booby trapped at any minute. We tied up alongside the dock and the skipper and the two engineer officers climbed up the ladder and gave a very quick examination of the cranes and hoists and the dock controls. To their surprise everything seemed to have been left in good order, and retreating Germans seemed to have presented HMS Duncan with one of the best ports in France!

We turned round with infinite caution. The ships log-book showed every position and every change of course and speed which had been made on our way in, so the skipper and the navigating officer piloted us out very slowly and as closely as they could to our course and speed on entry.

When we were through the harbour entrance we roared off at full speed making for Pompey where our precious log-book was delivered showing a mine-free route into the port of Cherbourg. Now that this was in allied hands German positions in France could be outflanked from the West. The war in Europe was not over and the Germans still had some nasty cards to play in the desperation of defeat but their backs had been broken and France was being liberated. We experienced this on the following day way EG14 steamed southwards along the West coast of La Manche. French fishermen were out in large numbers in their small boats and dinghies. We waved and shouted “Vive la France” to them and threw out tins of tobacco which delighted them.

The weather which had been uncertain since D-Day became brilliant with calm blue seas and wonderful green sunrises and sunsets. It was then that the bodies started to float to the surface. When the first body was sighted the ship slowed down a scrambling net was tied over the side and an officer and two sailors were sent down onto it to haul out the body, but it took so long that the skipper called of the operation because we could see plenty of other such bodies surfacing and the ship would have been a sitting target for attack for aircraft or submarine while we were struggling to bring the bodies aboard. But I did see that our first corpse cam from Milwaukee. Some how it drove home the debt that Britain owed to the USA in defeating Hitler.

Actually it was not long before we were attacked by a German plane. We had heard that the Germans had developed glider bombs which their aircraft could steer down onto their targets. They had hit a Canadian destroyer, the Aosiniboyn in the engine room doing very serious damage, though the ship had been towed into harbour.

But it was soon our turn to face an attacker. We had two Swedish Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns mounted on the upper deck. Their disadvantage was that the gunner himself could not see where his shots were going, so he had to be controlled by a spotter. I was spotter for the forward gun and another sub-lieutenant was spotter for the after gun. The attacking plane was said to be a heavy old Dornier bomber. As it came close I gave the order to fire, but I did this too soon for I saw that our shots fell short. Then the magazine ran out. The gunner and I had to change the empty magazine and put on a full one. It was as well that the after gunner was able to keep his fire going for longer. The ship was roaring along at full speed and the captain ordered a violent turn to starboard. Luckily the glider bomb blew up in the sea about 200 yards away and did us no damage.

Within minutes two of our own planes, the wonderful new mosquito, three engine fighter bombers, appeared on the scene and one of them straight away shot the Dornier down into the sea. The cheers from Duncan’s crew must have been heard right across the channel.

After this adventure EG14 concentrated on patrolling southwards along the coast of Brittany where the Germans had a number of bases including Brest, Lorcent, St Nazaire and down to La Rochelle. The commander of our group issued a Nelsonic signal along the lines of “none may escape”, but I think the crew of Duncan took a less heroic view, especially when we got shelled off Belle-Isle. Suddenly the noise of shells screaming through the air caused me to fling myself to the deck where I probably turned as grey as the ship. It was perfect gunnery as two shells hit the sea close by on the starboard side and two to port. Our gunnery officer was standing close by. “Stand up, John,” he said. “It’s the one you don’t hear that gets you.” Which is quite true as an exploding shell travels much faster than the noise it makes.

We could not shoot back because the Germans on Belle-Isle were firing smokeless shells at us, so we had no targets at which to aim. So we pushed off and Nelson’s message was disregarded.

We were ordered North again and a few days later we went to escort our old friend the Battleship Wazspite which with heavy ships from the U.S. navy was pulverising strategic targets on the French mainland, while the ships of EG14 went round and round in circles making all the smoke they could to hide them from counter-attack.

One thing soon became obvious: the Wazspite fired an enormous salvo, maybe once every two or three minutes, whereas the U.S heavy cruiser about four or five miles to the east of her was firing continuously all the time: their was not let-up for the Americans had mechanised the firing and reloading sequence of all their guns. British ships were still shooting as they had done in the 1914-1918 war! Again I felt very grateful that the Americans had come in on our side.

Our escort group was ordered North up to the Clyde again and I found myself transferred to another ship, the sloop, HMS Bridgwater which had started life as a Chinese river gun boat, so she had a very shallow draught and rolled around like a pig, but m appointment did not last long for Hitler’s suicide was followed by Germany’s surrender. All her U-Boats were ordered to the surface, to fly a large black flag and to motor to the nearest designated surrender port. For German subs in the North-Wets this was Scarpa Flow, scene of the surrender of the German fleet at the end of the First World War. I suppose we saw four or five U-Boats on this mission. We kept our guns turned on them and our sailors shouted oaths but no skirmishes broke out. The war in the West had ended. VE-Day was celebrated with street parties throughout the land.

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