by Gordon Skea (A survivour now aged 83years )
Perhaps the thoughts that St Valentine’s Day brings are somewhat different to everyone's mind. It is the chance to get even with somebody to bring them down to earth, as it were. Or on the other hand an opportunity to declare a love that has lain dormant for a long time. A card or gift sent to a loved one, anonymously of course, usually has the recipient in a state of excitement or in a quandary, or both:
My thoughts on St. Valentine’s Day are perhaps unusual and for me it is difficult to bring to mind anything but thoughts of the eighteenth of February and not the fourteenth, thoughts of a boyish face that had yet to grow the full bristles of manhood.
You, the reader of this narrative, will no doubt form your own conclusions as to whether my own very personal St. Valentine’s Day should fall on the eighteenth and 1 leave it to you.
The ship, a six thousand ton, six inch gun cruiser lay alongside the quay in Naples Harbour. The ammunitioning, oiling and provis-ioning completed, it was now ready to sail to the Anzio Beachhead where it had been before the all too brief spell, without shore leave, in Naples. I say “spell”, but anything that granted us a relief in harbour away from the monotonous bombardment of unseen targets, and being bombed ourselves, was a bonus. To be able to sling our hammocks for a change and to have a good night’s sleep was indeed a luxury.
We had left harbour and were steaming towards our allotted posi-tion, when the first two torpedoes struck us port side aft. Luckily my mates and I were “watch below” at the time. After the “tinfish” had struck our action station, the after director, or master sight, was blown from its mounting about fifteen feet above the upper-deck. …. If we had been on it?
Being a leading-seaman I formed a party to shift top-weight, the ship having taken a heavy list to port, to get her on an even keel once again. Having moved, or ditched the heavier stuff from the portside over to starboard, I began to get the ship ready for the tow back to Naples.
It is the practice when paying-out a large crippled wire to stand on the coil and release one turn at a time in order not to end up with - the saying is international among the sea-going fraternity ‘~a bunch of bastards'. The coil was stowed just forward of the after funnel, and the task of standing on the wire, a menial one which a most junior seaman can do with ease, was given to my relief, a young ordinary seaman, whilst I moved a few feet to the ship’s side, to see if the working-party were coiling the wire correctly. They were in fact in the act of passing the wire over the side.
Perhaps my instructions had not been clear, however! It was an easy task to haul it back and to coil it down again ready for use. This was being carried out, when another two torpedoes struck the other side of the ship in almost the same place as before and opposite to where I was standing. Fortunately I was standing close to the ship’s side whilst directing the party coiling down the wire, and I found myself being blown or thrown into the sea, and then swimming upwards to the surface. I must have gone down some distance for when I broke surface again the ship was in two pieces, the stern showing her rudders and screws and the red-leaded bottom of the main part of the ship rising to an almost vertical angle before taking her final plunge.
Striking out to try and put as much distance between me and the ship in case of further explosions from depth-charges etc. and getting a fair distance away I treaded water and watched as she disappeared. Seeing a Carley-Float come to the surface and having no life belt I struck out for it forgetting in my haste about the dreaded oil-fuel till it was too late.... It stank and stung the eyes, clogged the nostrils and if one swallowed it, it was almost certain death, for many men died that day from oil-fuel poisoning.
The stark reality was forced upon me a few years later whilst watching the television news of the sea—birds covered in oil in the Gulf—war and how we must have looked that fatal day.
The U—boat commander certainly knew his business and carried out his attack in almost copy-book style, for the ship having lost-way and had almost completed a full circle he fired his second two torpedoes which tore the ship in half.
The young ordinary-seaman I never saw again, with the ship breaking in two almost at the point where he was standing, I only hope his end was swift.
It was February the 18th 1944…The ship was HMS Penelope also known as the' Pepperpot ' from her previous commission.
Out of a complement of 618 officers and men only 203 survived, she sank in one minute twenty-five seconds after the second two torpedoes hit, the U-boat 410 had done her work, her commander was Otto Fenski aged 25 years.
The name of that young ordinary—seaman was Valentine, St. Valentine the second.... I often wonder!