- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Jim Renshaw, Stanley Cook
- Location of story:
- Norway, Sweden, Scotland and Plymouth, England
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 August 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site, having been transcribed from an audio recording, by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of James Renshaw, and has been added to the site with the his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Part 2 is at: A4797921
I was born in Sheffield. After an uneventful youth, I decided to join the Navy. My brother and I applied through the recruitment office; he failed and I was successful, so I finished up with a ticket to go up to Manchester to join the recruitment group, and I was sent down to Plymouth, in the Royal Navy. After my six months’ training, I was shipped out to the Mediterranean, to join a ship that had just been sunk. This is still actually in peacetime; it was the H.M.S. Hunter, and she was reputed to have hit a mine, but she sank down to a floating level. I joined her when she had been rebuilt. The first journey that we had was to join the Spanish Revolution that was taking place. We clued up in Barcelona and took out the British Consul and all of his employees, because Barcelona was being bombed.
We had one attack, which was by small Italian fighter planes. Meanwhile, the Germans were practicing their bombing technique on the poor Spaniards. After that, we did a cruise of the Mediterranean, then came home to Plymouth, and whilst we were back in Plymouth, restoring, threats from Adolph Hitler came along, and the ship finished up joining the South Atlantic Fleet to cut off two ships that were going to cut the trans-Atlantic cable. From that, we started doing convoy duty from Halifax Nova Scotia, in Canada, to Bermuda, picking up cargo ships, grouping them in Nova Scotia, for the journey across the North Atlantic. During this, we got into a hurricane, and we had to be convoyed ourselves, as we were so damaged.
After arriving in Plymouth again and being repaired, we went to cruise the North Atlantic again, and whilst we were doing the Iceland and Beyer Island run, we had a signal sent to us, to say that the Germans were invading Northern Norway, and would we kindly go up there and give them a thrashing? But it didn’t work out that way; being a junior member of the ship’s company, I was supplied with nothing more than an empty revolver. On querying as to what I was supposed to do with this thing, I was told that I’d be given ammunition when we arrived in Norway. Meanwhile, if I got into any trouble, I was to swing it around my neck. Anyway, the boat landing never came in. Whilst we were off Lofoten Island, where we’d gone to escort four mine-laying cruisers, we heard that the Germans were in Narvik and we were asked to kindly go in and sort them out. So on the tenth of April, at 4 a.m., we dashed into Narvik harbour, where there were twelve destroyers, each one with it’s own cover behind a merchant ship. Anyway, we sank four of them, then our captains decided we’d go in for a second helping, so we went in again, and by this time, the Germans were up and about, making certain alterations to their positions.
We charged in and Hardy, the sister ship of The Hunter, was driven aground. My ship, having learners aboard, was having a bit of difficulty with the smokescreen. There will be no record of this anywhere, not even the Admiralty will admit it, but we had quite a few greenhorns (rookies) with us, and they were given responsible jobs such as setting off the smokescreens. Now, there were three smokescreens on the destroyer, one is on deck, one is below deck and the other is the funnels themselves. This young lad, he lit a large canister, the size of a dustbin, but he didn’t have the strength to push it overboard, thereby ending the smokescreen. So now we’re trailing around Narvik Harbour with our smokescreen coming behind us. Smokescreens are produced to go into and out of, and our following destroyer went in and out of ours, but on coming out, it plunged into the Hunter, virtually cutting her in two. I was down in the shell room supplying the ammunition, when all of a sudden, a shout went out, “ABANDON SHIP!!” I was very cautious of abandoning ship in twelve degrees below freezing, because Narvik is an ice-free harbour; the tide is so strong that ice cannot form. Anyway, I got into a life raft, and that was the last I could remember until I found myself aboard a German ship. It was a whaler called the Jan Wellen.
We finished up as Prisoners Of War under the Germans in a schoolroom, high upon a hill overlooking Narvik Harbour. We had to join a couple of hundred Merchant Navy seamen, whose ships had been captured whilst anchored in Narvik, but that wasn’t the end of it. They decided that we were to be shipped out, because they couldn’t feed us; there was no food in northern Norway, so we were to be shipped over the border into Sweden, then into concentration. We joined a parade comprising seamen, sailors, Norwegian seamen, Norwegian fishermen on a death march from Narvik to Bejer Mountain, which is on the border between Norway and Sweden. It’s a posh ski hotel. Now, I, being who I am, decided that whilst we were in this hotel, we’d make the most of what we could, so I ventures into the bowels of the hotel, the basement. Of all things, I found a box with about a gross of unusually shaped chocolate bars. A chocolate bar in Norway and Sweden in those days was finger shaped, not a slab. Anyway, I finished up with these bars, plus two oranges. I took ‘em up to what we were using as sleeping quarters and I was forced to give them out to the ship’s company. This led to me being the urchin of the gang. I finally had to entrain with the land storm from Sweden, which is the equivalent of the W.V.S., who gave us tea, cigarettes and other things.
We were locked in railway coaches for a journey across Sweden. Various tactics were used to find out in which direction we were going, e.g.: if the sun is over here, the shadows will be over there, so early morning, we were heading eastwards. We arrived at a little church in a village called Gunarn. I became friendly with a little girl from outside of the barbed wire; she taught me Swedish. She wished to learn English and I wanted to learn Swedish, so between the two of us, we managed to make something of it. I learnt quite a lot, but the company we had, was taken away to another camp, because even being Navy trained, as I am, we were just that little bit above the standard required. We were then kept in one block; the Merchant Navy men all disappeared, we don’t know where they went. The next move was, the church authority decided we had been there long enough. It was a brand new church, it wasn’t blessed or anything. We had to go to another camp down in Helsingmo, which is another prison camp. Now there, I met up with a young lady, a head mistress of the local school who wished to learn English.
Now, some of the features of this co-operation were quite unique. I was taken in, and the family that took me in, clothed me and fed me to a standard that was way above that which my shipmates were receiving. I was accepted into the family. The reason being, was that whilst we in England, buy the Christmas turkey, they purchase a suckling pig. A huge van comes round, selling these suckling pigs, and the pigs are fed on table scraps until Christmas. Come Christmas, it gets the chop. They were all leaning over the sty where the pig is kept and the owner of the pig is crying his eyes out. “The pig is dying, the pig is dying,” was all I could get out of him. The pig was over here, then over there and it was shivering and they couldn’t figure out why. I found the answer; I shoved my hand into the straw and found that it was wet. So, we took out the wet straw and replaced it with dry straw, in goes the pig and there goes another medal for me. I was the hero of the village at the time.
Now, I was beginning to learn how to ski and all those other things that rich people do. I was becoming a local figure, insomuch as when we had our next move to a nearer camp, I was taken away for a holiday back to the first camp. Meanwhile, the British Consulate decided that we couldn’t run around like this, we’d have to be more suitably dressed. Being Englishmen, we were brought under the spotlight by the newspapers, and we were to be more suitably dresses. He never mentioned the fact that the supplies in our camp were the remnants of the 1914 — 18 situation. And you can imagine a chief stoker riding on the back of a horse, with an umbrella up and a bowler hat on; I personally had a velvet suit. But they decided that we should be measured and supplied with the necessary kit, so we all in turn received two grey shirts, a pair of grey trousers, shoes we had to provide ourselves; but we got this kit and we were beginning to look a little bit smart. That wasn’t the end of it; we knew there was something behind it.
Now, 2 ½ years are going by now, and I couldn’t get home, there was no outlet, yet it was a situation where Sweden was neutral. So the British Consulate came up with a system: they’d have three high speed boats, and they would dash in through the Skagerrak, into Gothenburg, load up during the night, with butter and coffee, dash out again, loaded with ball bearings and various other hardware pieces. They were running back with these small motor launches across the Kattegat, then the Skagerrak, into the North Sea and back to Newcastle. So he told them of this idea that in the harbour of Norway, in the Baltic Sea, there are numerous forts in which there were English owned cargo ships with no crews because they’d been imprisoned, so, would we man them? Well, obviously, yes, we’ll man ‘em. We navy men were given a job of fitting all these appliances that the navy could supply. I had a twin Lewis gun, 14 — 18 war vintage, two large sugar boxes full of ammunition, two rocket launchers on the roof, which, at the pull of a string, would launch rockets, which would open out a parachute with dangling wires, and they were supposed to make the planes run into them, but they were a total failure.
Anyway, I left that particular ship, did all the necessary alterations, and being the leader of the band, I was given the job of testing by a firm called, Trellyborne Gummy Fabriek which is Swedish for Trellyborne Rubber Factory. They’d invented a survival suit. Now this survival suit consists of a boiler suit in rubber, with gloves welded on, feet welded on, and a double zip up the front, one in brass followed by another one that closed two rubber grommets together. I had to test these, so we blasted a hole in the ice, whilst we were alongside, and I had the job of getting into the 20 feet thickness of ice, getting in and testing the suits. They were remarkably good, but extremely bulky, and they had a hood. When it came to personal use, you had to take your arm out of the sleeve; if you could get your arm out of the sleeve you could get it into your trousers pockets, and you’d have a kidney shaped flask. It wasn’t to drink out of, it was for other purposes. It was designed to facilitate urination.
Anyway, I finished up having to take six Lascars (Indians) as passengers. Now of six Lascars in that day, five would be workmen, one would be the boss man who would be in charge of the other five. He’d be collecting their wages and sharing out, and providing for their religious beliefs and all that. I had to train them how to put the suits on in an emergency. Anyway, came the day that we had to sail, so, there were twelve ships. I have a list and a certificate signed by Sir George Binney. He ran a system from whence we get the Binney Medal. He organised all these ships to come together, of from Gothenburg, and sailed together behind the icepack. But the big ships go in first, breaking the ice. Three of the ships did manage to make it to Newcastle. The one I was in, which carried Sir George Binney, was H.M.S. Dicto, the M.V. Dicto. Several of the ships, I still have the names of them, we had a wine carrier a Charente, which is a district in France, B.P. Newton, which was an oil tanker. The one I was on, H.M.S. Dicto, was a one-passage ship, she made one passage to South America, and they’d loaded the fuel carrying cargo holds with wheat, so there was wheat everywhere. There was no room at all for oil. She was imprisoned in a port much further up the harbour, in the Baltic. Anyway, we all gathered together and at four o’clock, we had the orders to sail. The unfortunate part about it was that the pilot who was to take us out to sea, had bought a local newspaper, and that paper reported the fact that the English ships were sailing. So all the Germans had to do was to come out and wait for us behind the ice. The first few ships were sunk, two or three of them got through, three of ‘em were captured and they finished up in Germany. The one I was on, because I had the chief with me, turned around in the ice, being a big ship, and finished up back in Gothenburg. The following day, there was a ruckus in the paper, “Why let these ships go?” I was called up with a friend of mine, to go to the Consul’s office
Continued in Part Two:
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