William Arthur Thomas in 1942 whilst aboard H.M.S .Fernie.
- Contributed by
- People in story:
- William Thomas
- Location of story:
- world war 11
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 February 2004
I was born in August 1923 and brought up in a small welsh speaking village in South West Wales. My first job after leaving school at the age of fourteen was at the village colliery. I had accepted the offer of employment in the mine with the understanding I would leave as soon as I could secure a job at the local tin plate works. I worked at the colliery for nine months. My late father had been a miner, my three elder brothers were miners, it was not a career I wanted to pursue. My brother David had received his call up papers at the start of World War 11. He found out the colliery manager had refused to release him from the mine, but not before he had spent two very anxious weeks worrying himself sick about going to war.
My uncle Albert had been a Boy Sailor, he had gone to sea when he was fourteen and seen action in the First World War. A long time before the declaration of the Second World War, Albert had told my mother to start stocking up on tin foods and dried goods. Our house was on a hill overlooking the village and was surrounded by farms and fields, we had a huge garden where we kept chickens and pigs and grew our own vegetables. Our house was one of the few homes lucky enough to have a proper bathroom. During the war soldiers stationed at a nearby farm would come over to the house to bathe. Every day two soldiers would use the facilities. My mother and sister would make sure they were given a meal, the stock of tin stuff had come in handy. The bombadier thought the soldiers were taking advantage of my mother's hospitality and put a block on them eating our food. They started bringing my mother loaves of bread which were about three feet in length. One of the soldiers, a keen dancer, used to borrow my brother's shoes for a night out at the local dance hall, when he returned them they were so well polished they shone like glass.
I was eighteen in 1941. Three friends from the village and a workmate had decided to enlist in the Royal Navy. At the time I was working as a roller man in the tin plate works, very hard graft for a five foot four youngster, but I enjoyed my job. One Saturday morning the five of us were to meet and travel into Swansea to enlist at the Y.M.C.A. My three friends had let me down, one friend couldn't come because his parents wouldn't let him, trying to blame me for coaxing their son to enlist when it had been his idea in the first place. Another friend used the excuse of having a bad head and the third so called friend had bad ears. I did not want to let Ernie my workmate down, so I went to meet him as arranged. We could not enlist that day because we had not taken our birth certificates with us; we returned a few weeks later and were told they had enough recruits, so home we went. The manager of the colliery where I had worked had offered me my old job back to save me from enlisting or being called up, but my mind was set on joining the Royal Navy. My three friends headed for the mines.
The Navy had not forgotten about me, my call up papers arrived in May 1942. My mother was extremely upset, worried that I was leaving home for the first time and might never return. My brother saw me off from the railway station; at the age of eighteen I was leaving the security of a close-knit community to face the unknown. I did not want my mother and sister crying on the station platform while waving me off so I said my good-byes to them at home. It was a long train journey ahead of me to Devonport, where I spent three months on the H.M.S. Raleigh training ship, another couple of weeks in barracks before boarding a train to Sheerness. When I reached Sheerness, the ship I was assigned to was out on patrol and would not be returning to port but docking at Immingham. I had to board another train to Immingham and reached my destination late at night. I stayed at the dock overnight as I was not due to board ship untill the following morning. I had to wait on the quay side for over an hour before I could finally board the ship because the Captain was carrying out his ship inspection. I was to spend the next four years working as a radar operator, patrolling the North Sea, from Norway down to the Channel Islands. The ship I served on was the escort destroyer HMS Fernie.
On one occasion we had docked at our base in Sheerness, most of the crew had shore leave. I was looking after the officers who had stayed on board. The mess needed to be painted so I was expected to help out. I used to smoke in those days and carried out my painting duties with a paintbrush in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I did not realize at the time the lead fumes from the paint combined with cigarette smoke was a lethal combination, I couldn't breath, my head was spinning and I was sweating profusely, the doctor from our ship was on shore leave so I was seen by the doctor of a neighbouring aircraft carrier. He diagnosed lead poisoning, gave me a letter saying I was allergic to paint, and was not to undertake any further work which brought me into contact with paint. I spent a couple of days laid up in the mess recuperating. One thing I failed to mention to the doctor was the fact I had been smoking at the same time I was painting; I do not thing he would have been so sympathetic if he had known.
There was always plenty to eat along with the daily ration of rum. We used to make sure the tins of food such as corned beef were held back so there was always something to take home to relatives when we were on leave. We were allocated up to twelve days leave every three months and I would nearly always travel home to Wales. If we had forty-eight hours leave and were docked in Sheerness, we would travel into London, stay overnight at the Y.M.C.A., bed and breakfast would cost 1s 6d. If you were a minute late boarding ship when you had been ashore or after coming back from leave you faced being hauled up in front of the captain. Life on board ship was never dull. On one occasion our ship had sailed into Plymouth Sound, the weather was horrendous, the Captain was trying to berth alongside another ship, the ropes kept snapping. After a gruelling twelve hours the first Lieutenant and buoy jumpers managed to shackle the chains to the buoy.
We had a French dog aboard ship called Izzy. A crew member had found the abandoned dog in a dishevelled state on the quayside in Dieppe. He picked her up and jimped onto the ship which was already pulling away from the dock. She was a favourite with everyone, her bed was in our mess and she spent time with us at the stern. The sailor who had rescued her used to take her home with him to the Rhondda when he was on leave. The great coat I wore during my years in the Navy had belonged to Uncle Albert. By this time he had served in both World Wars. Albert was aboard HMS Gloucester when it was sunk on 22nd May 1941 in Crete. He suffered horrific internal injuries, his stomach was slashed from one side to the other, his naval career was over. He died from his injuries about two years later. Giles, one of my ship mates had served with Albert aboard the Gloucester.
It was 4th June 1944 that HMS Fernie set off from Southend to make our way to Normandy. Severe storms had delayed the ship from leaving port; we had waited over twenty-four hours before the Captain set sail. It was the 11th June that we came to the aid of the frigate HMS Halsted, German U-boats had torpedoed her, the bow of the ship was blown away. Our crew picked up the survivors and dead. The men were covered in oil and fuel. We had to see to their injuries, bathe and clothe them, the dead were buried at sea. I still have photographs of the sea burials. We towed the Halsted back to Southampton stern to stern at a speed of over twenty knots, this was quite a feat.
I am now eighty years of age, I have never really spoken about the war years, most people I know who have lived through it and survived have just got on with their lives. After I was demobbed in 1946, I went back to my old job at the tin plate works, and got married in 1951.My late wife had worked in an ammunitions factory in Bridgend during the war, the factory was thirty miles from her home, she had to set out at 4 a.m. travelling by bus and train, not arriving home until seven at night, her mother had also worked there even though she had ten children at home to bring up. My own mother was a seamstress and made vests for factory workers, while my sister worked at the tin plate works. My two children had studied Welsh and Ancient history at school; they had no real knowledge of wars of the twentieth century. They knew I had served in the navy during the war, to them it was just a job.My war medals were kept in an empty tobacco tin which my son used to play with, he managed to lose them, my wife had said "why worry, they are only medals, nothing important".As a surprise for my eightieth birthday, my daughter had them relpaced. My grandson started asking me questions about the war when it was part of his course work for his G.C.S.E. exam, he became really interested in the subject.
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