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HMS Whelp: Memories of a Young Stoker. Part 6


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11 January 2005

Entering the Royal Navy weeks before my eighteenth birthday, I travelled to Malvern in Worcestershire. Cannot remember too much about Malvern, only the march through the streets and entering H.M.S Duke the shore-based establishment. Incidentally, I notice that my service certificate states that the date of volunteering was March 28th 1943. Commencement of time was 1st June 1943, which was crossed through and 22nd June was added. (22nd June being my birthday). Possibly they were unable to officially recognise that I was under eighteen years of age. That was the longest journey I had made away from my home and family. The introduction to harsh Naval discipline after the friendly discipline of family life. The hurried and effective manner fitness, dressing and life at sea was introduced to you. After that first few weeks it was then time to be transferred. This time to another naval establishment to quickly learn the workings of the branch of the service you had entered. Having left the civilian job of solicitor’s clerk it seemed only natural that the title of stoker would be the obvious choice. Perhaps it may have been because my elder brother was a Leading Stoker serving aboard a cruiser or that my father was a stoker in World War 1. It was a matter that never worried me. The next naval establishment was Stamshore Camp, which was, situated a couple of miles from the centre of Portsmouth. Whether or not it was a pre-war holiday camp I do not know but it was built right on the beach. That was where the training for Stoker ratings commenced. The history sheet gained after my discharge from the Service in 1947 made good reading. It recorded the progress as Stoker 2nd Class under training. Commencing 12/7/43 to 19/8/43, under the heading of Class of Certificate awarded on completion was written “Superior” and “Recommended for early Advancement”. Not a lot more information is recorded on that history sheet S. 1246A (Revised — July, 1938.)
The Engineer Officer’s aboard the two destroyers I served on obviously did not like paper work. In a matter of days, if I remember correctly on completion of that thirty-eight day course it was to the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth that the class was transferred. Was not overjoyed with the R.N. Barracks and was pleased when taken the short distance into the dockyard aboard a Naval lorry complete with kitbag and hammock. Through the dockyard gates and the excitement of seeing the fighting ships up close, the ship in dry-dock the dockyard workers the hustle and bustle seemed to me so very exciting. The lorry stopped on the jetty where some destroyers were tied up. The Petty Officer in charge read some names from the paper on his clipboard one of which was mine. Climbing down from the lorry gathering my hammock and kitbag noticed the nearest destroyer was named “H.M.S. Stevenstone”. Together with the other draftees whose names had bee called climbed the gangplank from the jetty to ship. An officer and an able seaman standing in front of a small desk on which stood a board met us when we stepped aboard the destroyer. On the board had been painted neatly “H.M.S. Stevenstone’’. It was a happy ship and I settled down very quickly learned my duties, which was watch keeping in No.1 Boiler Room with a very competent Petty Officer. I cannot remember his name but he set a standard, which made me feel confident in the job I had to do. The ship was part of a Flotilla attached to the Home Fleet and our base was Portsmouth. Meeting convoys coming in from the Atlantic and escorting them through the Channel to ports along our coastline. Most of the time convoy duties were very boring and it was only when German planes put in an appearance that the monotony was broken. As it was, pre D-Day there was plenty of excitement for our Flotilla with our trips across the Channel. Most of the trips never amounted to much. One that comes to mind, which concerned the Royal Air Force Officers and other ranks coming aboard fetching with them plenty of electrical equipment, all very mysterious. After a day of listening to all the different rumours circulating round the ship, which is, normal when any operation is about to take place we left Portsmouth early the following morning. Our entire Flotilla steamed across the Channel and I remember it was a nice clear sunny day. The R.A.F. personnel were very much in attendance on the upper deck on the trip across. It may have been in anticipation of the success of the operation or that it was such a pleasant day, weather wise. With the French coast in sight, we cruised up and down doing everything possible for some reaction from the German forces. They never took the bait. Not an enemy aircraft took to the sky much to the annoyance of our airforce friends and all their equipment. Whatever the operation was mounted for was a failure. We never saw an enemy plane, an enemy ship or anything that belonged to the enemy. After a few hours of seeing nothing but our own ships cruising up and down we turned and came back to Portsmouth. I just wish that all our trips across the Channel had ended returning so happily. As I described earlier the terrible night we went over in force with destroyers and a cruiser to attack a convoy off the French Coast, which ended in disaster. German’’ E ‘’ Boats (fast torpedo carrying boats) must have been lying in wait for us. We never knew what hit us. They must have fired their torpedoes at us, making sure the first target was the cruiser. Being on watch that night and having the “Middle” watch (which is midnight until 4a.m.) and being in the Boiler Room things were rather hectic. We did not know exactly what was going on for a very long time. Our job was to supply our Captain with more steam or less steam when asked for. Our watch finished at 4 a.m. but we were not relieved until well past four. It had been a long night and worse was to come when we eventually climbed the ladder from the Boiler Room, in and up through the Air lock and faced the dark of the night. The cruiser and destroyer or destroyers had been torpedoed and sunk. The terrible smell of oil fuel from the sunken ships, which is never forgotten, and which seems to cling to the back of your throat. Never to be forgotten was the singing and the sight of small red bulbs in the darkness. They were attached to the lifebelts of the sailors alive and dead in the black water. The singing of men alive trying to float near to ships that were trying to save as many as was possible.
The Petty Officer and I went to the side of our ship to help the many that were there already at the bottom of scrambling nets and pulling them up on to the deck. The men at the bottom of the nets could only pull out the survivors who could move or answered them. We at the top of the nets pulling them up could see the relief of the figures covered from head to toe in that putrid black oil fuel. They were safe. Many died that dark night and as dawn was breaking our Captain announced he would reluctantly have to make for home. We were very pleased with the number we had saved but it was a sad force that steamed into Devonport. As much as I liked being aboard H.M.S. Stevenstone wanting to travel and see different parts of the world was very much in my mind. This ship belonging to the Home Fleet was not the answer. Trying to get off her and chancing my luck to get a draft to a foreign bound ship was the answer. How do I get off H.M.S. Stevenstone? The only thing that came to me was that I had a problem with a cartilage in my right knee. It occurred when going for football training at Dulwich Hamlet F.C. before joining the Navy. Not giving me any pain it was forgotten by me, only coming to mind for an excuse to visit the sick bay. Seeing the doctor and explaining about my knee, he examined it and said that it probably would never give me any trouble. Telling him that it stopped me from playing football ever again the sick bay visit ended. Some time later he sent for me to go and see him and told me he was making arrangements for me to be transferred to the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar to have my knee operated on. The day of the transfer arrived and sadly I left H.M.S. ``Stevenstone`` to make the short journey to the Royal Naval hospital. Getting settled into a ward and seeing the surgeon, a Lt. Commander (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) who would perform the operation did not take very long. He explained to me the different cartilage names, external and internal and told me mine was external. Adding also semilunar cartilage which memory tells me is the wrong medical word. Together with the officer’s name all of which I remembered for a great many years. A great pity because he was a gentleman and he did a good job on my knee. Waking up in a post-operational ward with two nursing sisters, one on each arm lifting me into a sitting position was pleasing. The wire cage under the sheet protecting my knee seemed a very good idea but the pain was to be expected. Not much time was spent in this ward, nor in Haslar because before I was on my feet again I was told that they were moving me to Battle Hospital, Reading. Battle Hospital being a civilian hospital I can only assume that a ward was kept open to ease the bed situation once operations had been completed at Haslar. The day came and still bedridden was carried into an ambulance and the journey across country began. Arriving at Battle Hospital was transferred to a ground floor ward consisting of Forces members, all of whom had been operated upon. The wire cage had been removed and it was time to start using my right leg again. Being away from the discipline of the RN hospital was pleasant and the patients that were on there feet used to help the nurse on duty. The civilian staff was minimal so we had freedom to ease the duties of the nurse on duty. Waking early to make tea for the bedridden cases and with the night nurse making every bed in the ward. It sounds an unlikely story but with expert tuition from the nurse became very adept and matched her speed especially with corners. It pleased me being able to help this very frail little nurse who reminded me of one of my sisters. Her dedication and work rate was unbelievable and she had total respect of all the servicemen in the ward. Another character I came into contact with during my stay at Battle Hospital was the physiotherapist of the Reading Football Club. A kind softly spoken gentleman whose name is forgotten. He visited the hospital to massage my knee. I thought at the time how advanced his electrical machine was. Fitting over his hand the metal backed pad of electricity helped to strengthen my knee. It hummed its way around and we talked Being young at the time he seemed to me to be elderly no doubt only in his fifties. He was another nice person I met in Reading. Upon reflection since leaving home to enter the Royal Navy most of the people I had met appeared nice. Perhaps it was a sign of the times the war the partings and all the sadness around us that brought us all closer together. It appears that in reliving all that happened those past years I am repeating words already written. There was so much going on so many new places visited since joining the ``Whelp`` on the Tyne. Going to Scotland the Orkney Islands, Scapa Flow, Spitsbergan, Norway, and then when the Invasion of Europe started coming back down to Portsmouth. We left Portsmouth with our Flotilla assisted in shelling a southern French town to aid our land forces. When that operation was completed preceded Gibralter Malta Algiers. To Alexandria, Port Said, Aden, working our way through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal. Through the Red Sea and on to Attu Islands where we oiled all night. The next stop was Colombo in Ceylon, which has the changed name of Sri Lanka. Reached Trincomalee the base of the East Indies Fleet on the 11th September 1944. Made our way to Bombay, India stopped about 7 days for minor repairs. While there, tried to locate brother Harry was told had moved into Burma. Lord Louis Mountbatten came aboard before we left Triincomalee to move on to join the Pacific Fleet. Being guardian of Prince Philip who was our second in command on the ``Whelp`` I feel that most of what is being written has been already been told before. In recording places visited it is not being put down the duties we were performing. We were after all fighting the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and then moving on to Pacific Ocean.

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