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15 October 2014
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Wartime Memories of Lt. Commander Norman Yates 1939-1948. Episode 1

by BBC Open Centre, Hull

Contributed by 
BBC Open Centre, Hull
People in story: 
Submitted by his daughter, Eileen Rankin and Grandsons, Gordon and Neil
Location of story: 
The Grimsby Naval Base and pilotage duties in the Solent
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 June 2005

In September, 1938 the prospect of this country and Germany again going to war was very grave and real. Trenches were being dug in open spaces in London and vulnerable East Coast towns and air raid shelters built, gas masks issued and mass evacuation put into operation.
The Admiralty had been in touch with the Pilotage Authority of the Humber with a view to operating an Examination Service from the pilot cutter on station at the entrance to the river. There were difficulties which could not be overcome; the main reason being that it might increase the risk of the cutter being attacked by the enemy.
It was agreed however that pilots be asked to volunteer for service as examination officers, who would be granted the rank of Lieutenant R.N.R. I was one of the eight who were accepted.
The function of the Examination Service is to board all merchant ships and trawlers entering the river, scrutinize their papers, if needs be search the ship for evidence of intent to help the enemy.
About the middle of September, with Commander Bull, R.N. who had been appointed by the Admiralty as chief examination officer, we a party of nine, established ourselves temporarily in the pilot lobby at Grimsby Royal Dock. We were the vanguard of the Grimsby Naval base to be.
Diplomatic pressures were being asserted by the United Kingdom, Europe and America in an endeavour to persuade Hitler not to resort to war to gain what he wanted, which seemed to have little effect at that moment.
The Prime Minister, Neville Chanberlain, flew to Munich with proposals and with the French Prime Minister discussed proposals with Hitler and staff. By the 30th September, an agreement had been reached and in consequence tensions eased. Chamberlain and Hitler had signed a peace pact, so everything returned to normal.
We, the vanguard of the Grimsby Naval Base, packed up our kit and returned to our peaceful occupations.
This pact only proved to be effective for a year. The Government did not trust Nazi Germany, and preparations for the inevitable were intensified during this respite.
Contractors were working at top pressure erecting concrete air raid shelters, large for public use and small for private homes. To the north and south of the River Humber the land is flat and low lying so all shelters had to be constructed above the ground. An electrically controlled air raid warning system was set up and ack-ack guns sites prepared. All private houses, shops and factories and public buildings had to be made blackout proof.
Barely had a year elapsed before war was on our doorstep. Towards the middle of August, 1939 general mobilisation was ordered and mass evacuation put into operation again at large East Coast industrial towns and sea ports. Gas masks were issued and A.R.P. control centres set up.
My wife and I saw our daughter leave Hull with her school and very shortly after I left home for Grimsby, leaving a very lonely wife. Only on rare occasions since has she referred to the feeling of utter desolation she experienced at that time, having been deprived of her child and husband.
The prospect of spending lonely nights under blackout conditions and the expectation of air raids on the city were depressing. Fortunately I was able to keep in touch with her by phone and on occasions I got home. During the last week of August I met my seven colleagues. Pilots F. Casson, G. Colbridge, V. Harbord, G. Dines, E. Holmes, G. Spencley and J. Lazenby. Also the chief examination officer, Commander G. Brown, R.N.
Casson and were given the rank of Lieutenant Commander because of service in the 1914-18 war; we were assistant examination officers. Colleridge, Lazenby, Harebord, Dines, Holmes and Spencley were given the ranks of Lieutenant R.N.R. and were boarding officers. Their specific duty was to board all merchant ships. The Government had considered closing the North Sea and East Coast ports and diverting all merchant shipping to the West Coast. This plan was not, however, put into operation.
Before the examination service could become operational we had to take over four small trawlers from the Consolidated Fisheries of Grimsby, by name ‘Arlett’, ‘Belton’, ‘Flixton’ and ‘River Leven’. These four craft were handed over to us as soon as they had discharged their fish, complete with crews who had agreed to man their vessels on a special agreement known as T.124, non-combatant.
A mammoth task confronted us of getting these trawlers cleared out. They were old, their fish holds impregnated with fish slime and they stank to high heaven. After much hard work they bore a slight resemblance of cleanliness, but the smell still clung.
The Examination Services vessels being non-combatant flew the Blue Ensign and a special large red and white flag with a blue border. The vessels were manned by civilians, all of whom lived in the after cabin.
Under the bridge was a dingy cabin measuring about 7 feet square by 8 feet high and was entered through a small hatch in the wheelhouse floor and then down a vertical ladder. It had three small port lights and when dark the ship was lit by carbide gas, a nasty smelling, and if not handled with care, a dangerous method of illuminating the cabins.
The room had one bunk under which were some drawers, a small wardrobe, a narrow seat locker and a tip-up washbasin. It was usually used by the skipper. Now it was used by the boarding officers.
A Lieutenant and a Skipper R.N.R. were attached to each vessel. They shared one bunk. While one officer was on watch the other slept. Two naval signalmen were also attached to each vessel. When at sea these officers and ratings had to supply their own food. These Examination craft worked in pairs. Two at sea whilst two remained in dock — they changed round every 48 hours. They cruised at sea in what was known as the examination anchorage, an area just outside of the river mouth, covering about 5 square miles, to the south-east of Spurn Point. On September 3rd we were able to put two craft on station. War had been declared, merchant ships and trawlers entering the port closed the examination vessel which would go alongside, the boarding officer would go on board and examine the ship’s papers. If he found these to be in order the ship would be given a two flag signal consisting of a code flag over a numeral flag. The code flag was changed every day.
The Bull Fort built during the 1914-18 war stands on the Bull sand in a very commanding position at the river entrance and covered the examination anchorage with its 6 inch guns. The commanding officer, Colonel Page was supplied with the code and as each ship passed in his signal staff would check that they were flying the correct signal. Should a vessel attempt to enter the river without a signal or with a wrong signal flying, then a warning shot would be fired from the fort across her bow.
Upon boarding a vessel, should the boarding officer have any doubts whatsoever about the validity of her papers, or suspect her as one likely to assist the enemy, she was promptly made to anchor, the fact would be signalled by ladies signal lamp to the port and she would be covered by the 6 inch guns. The Chief Examination Officer would also be informed and would come out from Grimsby in his launch the ‘Ferryman’. With him and Assistant Examination Officer, a Royal Marine and Naval Petty Officer, all carrying small arms. This party would search the ship in a very thorough manner.
During 1940 some small continental and neutral vessels were suspected of carrying mines for the enemy. I do not recall ever making an arrest. It was certainly a wise choice by the Admiralty to appoint Humber Pilots and Grimsby fishing skippers as boarding officers. Not only had they an extensive knowledge of the merchant ships and trawlers that regularly came to the port, especially Continentals, but they also knew the personnel who manned them and any changes were quickly noticed.
At Grimsby we had established ourselves in a second story flat of officers having three rooms. They were situated between the Royal Dock and the Fish Docks seaward entrances, and directly under the shadow of Grimsby Hydraulic Tower, an erection of 300 ft. reputed to have a foundation of bales of wool and to have used up one million bricks in the course of construction. The office afforded an excellent view of the whole estuary. The office staff consisted of the chief officer, assistant and two signalmen. It was manned from daylight to dark for the port was closed from sunset to sunrise.
Connected by telephone to the Bull Fort and to Spurn Point, where the extended defence officer, Capt. Hunt, R.N. and his staff were stationed, they manned a listening post which by means of underwater equipment, the approach of submarines could be detected.
In the examination office a record of all vessels entering and leaving the port was kept. Information about mines laid in the river was noted and if possible their location plotted on a chart. Information about enemy aircraft approaching the river, movements of convoys on the coast, all this and much other information from the Admiralty and other sources was recorded and passed on to the Bull Fort, Spurn Point and the pilot cutter and the examination vessels.
The Naval Control Service was ready to operate upon the declaration of war. Its function was to route merchant ships on what was considered to be safe tracks out of the river and give them a rendezvous with the north of south-bound east coast convoy, according to the vessel’s destination.
Minesweeping trawlers made an early appearance and commenced to operate in the navigable channels of the river and along the convoy routes to the East of the river. Armed patrol trawlers, fitted with asdic joined the base which slowly grew under Capt. K. Cowan, R.N. the senior Naval Officer.
At that moment, little regard was paid of the naval routine. H.M.S. Beaver, as Grimsby was now called, gradually developed into a busy small craft base mainly manned by R.N.R., R.N.V.R. and W.R.N.S. officers, petty officers and ratings.
The senior officers in charge of all departments were Royal Navy captains, commanders and lieutenant commanders, all recalled from retirement; they were of three different schools.
First there were those who had graduated through the Naval College; next those who had graduated the hard way, from rating to officer; lastly those who had started their careers in the Merchant Service and joined the R.N.R. then taken a permanent commission in the the Royal Navy. All wore the same uniform. There was, however, a definite class distinction.

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