Chapter 16 (1944)

Back in Britain - to Doodlebugs

Slowly Home
It took us a week to get from Malta to Gibraltar, accompanying a convoy whose maximum speed was seven and a half knots. The Mediterranean reminded us of its worst nature for six of these days with a head-on sea and gale force winds, so that the Flores plunged bows-under like a submarine then soared high into the air, only to come crashing down again. It was still not uncommon to be attacked by torpedo bombers flying from Southern France, but happily we saw none, possibly due to the weather. The sun burst through when we reached the famous Rock where, after only a few hours' pause, we passed through into the Atlantic with a home-bound convoy. We headed west away from land for several hours, then met an even larger convoy accompanied by two MACs or Merchant Aircraft Carriers, which was coming up from South Africa and the Indian Ocean. The MACs were simply merchantmen with a flight deck welded on to them and it was a startling sight to see large US Maryland aircraft trundling slowly along the ridiculously short deck, which was often heaving up and down in the huge Atlantic swell, then drifting lazily upwards instead of crashing into the sea. 

No Survivors
The MACs were a marvellous protection during the day but alas could do nothing at night. The weather was gloriously sunny, though getting noticeably chillier as we moved north, and at night an enormous full moon lit the sky. Submarines were nightly reported to be in our vicinity and two or three were actually seen silently shadowing the convoy. One was sighted in the light of a full moon at 2am on 8th March while I was on watch and shortly afterwards the Flower Class Corvette HMS Asphodel was struck by an accoustic torpedo, exploded and vanished with no survivors. After the war, a friend named Ernie Ashmore asked if I had ever encountered a "ship with a funny name”. It turned out to be the Asphodel. His young brother had been on board; it was his 21st birthday on that fateful day.

Nearly Sunk by our Own Side
Next day, the Flores, Soemba and a diminutive trawler called the Alsey were ordered to leave the rest of the convoy, who were bound for Liverpool, and proceed independently to Portsmouth. This took us towards Lands End and also the French coast, and we felt distinctly naked when the other ships steamed away over the horizon. The Soemba with her asdic was jittery and we were startled when she suddenly dropped a depth charge whose explosion hit our hull like a steam hammer. However, shortly afterwards she closed alongside and sent over crates of beautiful large fish which her submarine contact had turned out to be. Next day there was a different and potentially terminal alarm. The wireless room intercepted a report from a Coastal Command aircraft which had sighted "two enemy minelayers and a trawler" in a position which I instantly recognised as our own. Our two strange, stubby shapes with their upright funnels were understandably not high on the pilots' ship-recognition list, especially in such waters. The Dutch sailors' uniforms must also have looked distinctly Germanic from the air, as I have remarked earlier. We broke radio silence regardless of orders and risk, to say "It's us, it's us!". Far away in the Admiralty, Freda and her chums were passing the time plotting my convoy's route home in the fortunate absence of any important operations. They too twigged what had happened and frantic appeals to the Operations Room resulted in an Admiralty cancellation of the report, but not before half a dozen huge US Liberator bombers had circled overhead, peering suspiciously at us. Both ships had fetched out the largest Dutch flags they could find and rapidly spread these on the upper deck, with sailors holding them out for clear visibility.

Home at Last
On 13th March 1944 we passed the Lizard and late that afternoon anchored in Plymouth Sound. We were home at last, scarcely able to believe it. Many of the crew had grown beards during the long months of action and they now shaved them off, revealing boyish pink faces underneath. But we had no shore leave and there was a hushed and expectant air on board as we speculated on the Britain we would find. Next day we set sail for Portsmouth and eventually with much excitement passed into the calm harbour waters and tied up in the Dockyard where we were inspected by none other than Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. The following day I went on leave and Freda met me at Waterloo Station. We had a joyous reunion, then home to Thornton Heath where the comfort of a bed that did not move and walls which did not echo to the sound of sloshing water were more than my brain could cope with. I slept fitfully. Freda and I resolved to get married forthwith and took the train to Cardiff, where we fixed the ceremony for 25th April at Whitchurch parish church, on the edge of Cardiff. However, a letter to home notifying me of a change of leave dates led to my frantically rushing to Portsmouth to explain that they were messing up my life. An adjustment was made, a further visit to Cardiff, and the date finally fixed for the 13th April 1944.

Wedding Day
At that stage of the war, it was impossible to get anything above one's normal rations. Frank Darwell kindly donated a cake which he somehow acquired from his old firm. It had two tiers and came complete with decorative white columns, but it had no icing. Freda's cousin Mary Collins found a small amount of pre-war icing sugar which had solidified but by dint of feverish pounding became sufficiently usable to cover the cake with a thin smear. Freda's mother had badgered all the black marketeers in Cardiff for some tinned meat and fruit. She also obtained a bottle of sacramental wine from somewhere, while my mother managed to get half a bottle of gin. It was possible, if one grovelled enough, to persuade a barman to half-fill a beer bottle with the cheapest draught beer, and Freda's brother Reg and I toured the Cardiff pubs the night before the wedding, buying a drink in each one and asking for a drop for the quart bottle which we carried with us. We arrived home quite merry and with one miserable bottle of beer. But by some unbelievable stroke of fortune, Freda's young brother Peter suddenly turned up that same evening, all the way from Canada where he had been training as a Fleet Air Arm pilot; and he was laden with goodies of a kind we had forgotten existed. He had no idea that a wedding was in prospect but generously donated most of his loot to the party.

The day dawned bright and clear and everything went off perfectly. Reg Prior was my Best Man and Mary Collins was Freda's Matron of Honour. In due course we set off for Cardiff Station and collapsed into a train bound for Cornwall. After a night at the White Hart in Launceston, we took a taxi to a tiny village called Trevalga, near Tintagel, for a week's honeymoon and pretended the war did not exist. It was blissfully quiet and the weather was kind. Tintagel is the site of so-called King Arthur's Castle, a ruin now but still endowed with an aura of romance and chivalry in the most beautiful setting. I returned to Portsmouth and finally took my leave of the old Flores. She had been my home and refuge for so long that I ought to have felt a pang of regret at my last view of her stubby shape lying peacefully at the quayside; but as far as I can recall, I walked off, carrying my hammock and kitbag, with a feeling of relief. Ships have a strange ability to generate strong emotions of all kinds from affection to hatred, particularly among those who sail in them. The Flores had been a good ship to me and my experiences in her have influenced the rest of my life. But as I have said before, a warship is a weapon of destruction: every aspect of life of board is geared ultimately to that task and questions of comfort or happiness are totally subordinated to its role except insofar as they may help to achieve it.

Officer Trainee
Frank and I were now off to a new life as officer trainees. Had I had any sense, I would have applied to become a cypher officer for which I was already well qualified. Instead, I applied to become an Executive Branch Officer which entailed several months arduous seamanship training in every branch of seamanship, beginning with three weeks in the Training Squadron based at Rosyth. We arrived in Edinburgh at 6.30am after a ghastly train journey and thankfully sat down to breakfast porridge at the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) which did marvellous work providing facilities for servicemen. But our pleasure turned to horror when we discovered that the heathen Scots were accustomed to putting salt, not sugar, in their porridge (which furthermore they were sometimes inclined to spell "porage").

HMS Corinthian
However, we survived and made our way by local train to Inverkeithing and thence to Rosyth Dockyard where we struggled onto HMS Corinthian, an Armed Merchant Cruiser. She was a beautiful passenger ship to which guns had been fitted, her only drawback being that she burned coal. Taking on coal at Leith was an incredible experience. A large gantry lifted a whole railway truck full of coal about fifty feet up to the top of a chute, then tipped it so that the contents avalanched into the ship's bunkers like thunder. Hordes of sailors in overalls (of whom I was one) clambered over the heap, levelling it to one side before the next load came crashing down. Within ten minutes the whole gleaming ship was covered in coal dust and we toilers visible only by the whites of our eyes. We chewed coal dust for days afterwards.

Life in the Corinthian began in winter with 6.30am "wakey-wakey" and scrubbing the decks at 7am in bare feet before breakfast, with a Petty Officer, muffled to the eyebrows and wearing heavy sea boots, copiously hosing the deck and our feet with water straight from the icy North Sea. On May 4th the ship went to summer routine, which meant that we woke at 5.30 and scrubbed decks at 6am instead of an hour later. At Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, where we promptly called, the sea was as near to real ice as it could get, and I remember that my feet would be numb until stand-easy at 10.30am. Our days were otherwise taken up with interesting theoretical and practical seamanship such as how to launch and recover the sea-boats while the ship is moving. This operation required skill and and careful judgement in lowering a boat over the surging waves before giving the order “Slip”, whereupon the boat dropped into the water and was pulled away from the ship’s side.

We kept the British 4-hour watches I have already described, of which the worst was the MiddleWatch from midnight till 4am. As compensation for being up half the night one was allowed to stay in one's hammock for an extra half-hour, from 5.30 till 6am as a "Guard and Steerage" man. Not that anyone could possibly sleep with the other chaps blundering and grumbling all around.

In Nelson’s HMS Victory
The three weeks in HMS Corinthian passed quickly and were full of interest. Frank and I both survived the initial weeding out of candidates and went back to Portsmouth, arriving in the middle of a tremendous air-raid. As usual, the train just pressed on into the station as if nothing were happening and everyone got out, then realised what they had come into and cowered under seats and trolleys till things eased up. The large barracks outside the dockyard were overflowing and as trainee officers we were sent to live in the old HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, now lovingly preserved in permanent dry dock in Portsmouth Dockyard. For six glorious weeks we lived as Nelson's crew must have done - but without the frightful overcrowding and vicious discipline of those days. Our mess of eight men was a table suspended at a cannon-port, and at night I slung my hammock over one of Nelson's original cannons. We had navigation lessons in his old cabin and were free to explore the vessel from top to bottom. It was a wonderful experience and we became "expert" guides, showing groups of visitors over the vessel as if we had actually sailed in her. One exhibit was a short piece of Victory's mainbrace, the huge rope which ran from her bows, across the tops of the masts, and down to the stern. Rope-making being less advanced then than today, the mainbrace was a massive six inches in diameter to give it the necessary strength. Putting a splice in such a rope was a torture which took many hours. As a reward, the sailors were given an extra tot of rum, which itself became known as Splicing the Mainbrace, an order which His Majesty the King gave to the whole Fleet on special occasions.

D-Day in Normandy
I was able to see Freda quite often but in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of Normandy a "no-man's-land" was imposed between Haslemere and Petersfield, to enter which travellers needed a special pass. Freda and I spent much time trying to defeat this arrangement but were usually sent back on our separate ways after kindly police had allowed us a few hours' together.

On 6th June 1944 the world awoke to the Allied invasion of Normandy - the long-awaited Second Front. Portsmouth Harbour immediately became a hive of activity. Sadly there were constant convoys of ambulances moving inland carrying casulaties from Normandy as the Germans put up a fierce resistance. Their fighting power was tremendous, in spite of the enormous battles on the Russian Front and their being taken by surprise at the actual point of the landings in Normandy. For many days the fighting around Caen resembled the static slog of the Western Front in the First World War and there were times when Allied morale came close to breaking. The story of how the invasion - Operation Overlord - was kept secret, in spite of its colossal size and the remarkable enterprise of Mulberry Harbour, almost defies belief. 

During this period the first flying bombs fell on London and South Coast towns, including Portsmouth. I remember waking in my hammock to the strange sound of this throbbing engine and wondering what it could be.

More Training but Eventual Failure
In July my companions and I were sent to a camp called HMS Excalibur, located at Alsager near Stoke-on-Trent, to pursue our training. We worked hard at gunnery, torpedoes, engineering, discipline, power-of-command and such subjects, but also had time off to explore the beautiful Staffordshire countryside and to visit the famous "Five Towns" of the Potteries. Little seemed to have changed since the days of the Industrial Revolution and our normal transport was by small, grimy but absolutely punctual little steam trains which traversed an intricate network of lines. After six weeks most of us went back to the Training Squadron at Rosyth, this time to an old but graceful "D" Class light cruiser, HMS Diomede. She had much less space than the Corinthian but was a real warship and we were by then much more proficient in most seamanship skills. We stood watch on the bridge, acted as lookouts, had night gun action duels with our sister ship, the Dauntless, shored up imaginary leaking bulkheads, took turns at the helm, acted as boats' coxswains; and in between studied more navigation, naval law, damage control, ship husbandry and much else. Keeping a large ship on a steady course against a gusting cross wind and a rough sea took some doing. She would take ages to answer the helm, then over-steer and take as long to come back again. It was an interesting but exhausting regime, particularly when short of sleep through night duty watches and at the end of seven weeks we were all punch-drunk. We then had final tests and interviews, and I found that I had failed, along with more than half of my colleagues, including Frank.

IMG 3709


Doodlebugs
I was very disappointed, but there was nothing to be done but to consider an alternative route for advancement. The next day I returned disconsolately to Chatham and thence to the relative peace of Cookham Camp. It was easy to get home, though I now had to wake up at 3.30am to accomplish the incredible journey back to duty. The flying bombs - V1s as the Germans called them and Doodlebugs as the Londoners did - were a terrifying weapon which now began to be launched at London in increasig numbers. They were pilotless aircraft which were set on a course to their target, with a timing device which cut the engine at the calculated time of arrival, whereupon the plane plunged to earth and its huge warhead exploded. They were designed to destroy towns and civilian populations indiscriminately. They could be launched from a small ramp and it was fortunate that the Germans had been forced to introduce them so late in the war, when the Allied invasion was already under way and their launching sites in the Pas de Calais would before long be overrun. Even so, the official account says that in the space of three months in the summer of 1944, 140 flying bombs fell on Croydon alone, where Freda and my mother lived. In all, almost 10,000 V1s were fired at the South East of England and at their peak more than 100 per day came. 1,032 houses were destroyed and 16,968 damaged. While on leave I myself saw one fall not far from our house and will never forget the huge cloud of bricks, rafters, tiles and dust hurled far into the air which were people's homes, with them inside. I also recall travelling in a bus and seeing pedestrians around us suddenly dive to the ground as the engine of a V1 passing overhead suddenly stopped. There would be a few seconds of blood-freezing silence, then an almighty bang. Everyone knew the thing would fall somewhere - but on whom? Anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes brought down some of the bombs but had the Germans been allowed undisturbed use of large numbers of launching sites, which were difficult to find and destroy from the air, the V1 would have had a significant effect on London's ability to continue as a capital city.

V1 flying bomb

Even when the V1 sites were eliminated the ordeal was not over. In September 1944 the V2s came. These were too awful for the now exhausted Londoners to find an amusing name for. There was no warning of any kind, just a devastating explosion as the eighty-ton rocket with ten tons of explosive, travelling faster than sound, buried itself deep in the ground and shattered everything up to a quarter of a mile away. At Chatham on a clear night we could sometimes see a pale blue flash, travelling high overhead at enormous speed; but those at the receiving end knew nothing. Fortunately, Croydon was not on the normal flight path of these weapons, but four did fall in the Borough.

Back to london
I now resolved to become a Radio Mechanic, carrying the rate of Chief Petty Officer, whose job was to maintain the radar and radio equipment of large ships, and I was speedily accepted into training for this. By an irony of fate, Freda was posted to the Admiralty at Bath and left Thornton Heath on 20th November 1944. Three weeks later, I was posted to the North London Polytechnic at Islington for my theoretical training, and was given permission to live at home! It was strange returning to 46 Leander Road and going to work daily by tram and train, just as I had done as a civilian. Stranger still being back in my own bed after over two years of discomfort and movement. Though I was still in the Navy, the course was run by civilian lecturers and I found it enthralling to learn about radio waves, valves and transmission lines. There was also a practical side involving metalwork, soldering, brazing and use of machine tools. Rockets still fell regularly, though at a rate far less than the Germans originally planned, but since there was no possible avoiding action one could take, the mind simply didn't dwell upon the dangers. One morning while at our studies in Islington we heard the sudden loud crash of an explosion nearby, followed by the long sickening rumble characteristic of the V2 which was a combination of buildings crashing down and the delayed noise of the missile's rush through the atmosphere. We hurried down to where a large covered market had been. It was a tangled mountain of steel girders and bricks over which rescuers clawed frantically, assisted by dogs to detect people buried under tons of rubble. The market had been full of people. London's ordeal in fact continued until 27th March 1945, when the last V2 descended just six weeks before the end of the war in Europe. Mercifully, a daring RAF raid on the German rocket experimental station at Peenemunde many months before had seriously delayed the introduction of these truly awful weapons which, while possibly not changing the eventual course of the war, would have caused immense destruction and loss of life in London.

My course in London was to last eight weeks, after which we would have practical training on ships' radar for several more weeks and would pass out as Chief Petty Officers. The down-side of this arrangement was that we would then go to the Far East to continue the war against Japan, which was still making painful progress and costing many lives. But as so often, Fate had other plans.

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