The war began on 1st September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. I had my fifteenth birthday two weeks before the war began. I was a scholarship pupil at Queen Mary Grammar School, Walsall
My mother was in hospital after a thyroid operation which went wrong resulting in mental complications. She was likely to be a long term patient. In those days one kept very quiet about mental illness. She had been headmistress of a small school in North Wales, but her mind had been changed completely by the operation.
My father decided that, as I was now fifteen, I should leave school and help with the home and earn a wage to supplement his income. (There was no national health scheme, and he had to fund many of my mothers medical bills.)
For six months in 1939/40, I worked in a factory in Birmingham making material for aircraft production, followed by six months in another factory making transmissions for tanks, lorries etc . I then moved to a job on the railway, in the depot where my dad was based. I took over the office job of one of the staff who had been called up into the army.
During the blitz I was a fire watcher in Birmingham. Fire watchers were supposed to smother incendary bombs with sandbags if any fell in their vicinity. If incendiary bombs ignited other material we were expected to attack it with a stirrup pump with water from a bucket. Thank god I never had to face that problem.
Many nights were spent just waiting for things to happen. However there were some heavy air raids, and one factory in the same street was burnt to the ground. The railway bridge carrying the trains past the depot was hit by a bomb, and a train fell into the street below, causing weeks of delay on a main line from Birmingham to the northeast. Lots of houses in the area were destroyed and much damage done.
One foggy lunch time, months after heavy bombing had ceased, I and two other juniors were walking along the railway for a mid-day break from work, when out of the mist a German bomber came flying just above the railway track within yards of us. We had the fright of our lives, but the plane disappeared into the fog without taking any action.
Joining the Royal Navy
My 18th birthday came in 1942 and shortly afterwards I joined the Royal Navy. I trained as a radio operator and learned German Radio operating practices. I was posted to an American built Captain class destroyer/escort (frigate) in 1943, and the ship, HMS Moorsom, joined escort group 15 which was based in Pollock Dock, Belfast.
Three of the radio operators on the Moorsom were trained in German procedures. Our job was to listen on U boat radio frequencies in order to hear submarines reporting back to base when they had spotted Allied convoys, or sometimes reporting weather conditions to Berlin to aid vital German high command strategic planning. (North Atlantic weather information was important in forecasting European continental weather).
When a U boat made a signal we had to get a direction bearing on him, enabling an attack to be made on the U boat to either sink him or keep him down under the sea so that he could not make reports on a convoy to disclose a change of direction or other actions taken to protect the convoy.
Life aboard a Captain Class Frigate (Destroyer Escort)
These American built ships varied considerably from British built frigates. There were two versions, one being steam turbine driven, the other diesel electric. HMS Moorsom belonged to the diesel electric version. Long periods at sea were generally miserable and uncomfortable. They had one bad design feature, there was no internal connection between the after (rear) messdecks and the forward area which included the bridge, forward messdecks and the galley.
My messdeck was at the rear. In rough weather with a heavy swell, it was necessary to wait for the starboard side to rise out of the water, then dash quickly to the other end of the ship before the next big sea hit. In really rough weather the rear messdecks could become completely isolated, cut off from all sources of hot food.
Our life was unimaginable by todays standards. Watchkeeping varied between three watches (four hours on and eight off) and occasionally two watches (four hours on and four off). If your time off coincided with action stations or daywork duties, life became extremely exhausting.
Coupled with these hardships there was always a diesel smell on the rear messdeck and with forty men crowded together, often unwashed, not because of laziness or neglect of simple hygiene, but because fresh water was always rationed. On long trips fresh water was turned off except for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening. One worked and slept in the same clothes for days and often weeks on end. Bedding was a thin mattress and one blanket (no sheets). On American built ships sleeping was in bunks. Condensation ran down the bulkheads and in these conditions your blanket changed colour from cream to a dirty grey. Luckily I was too young to appreciate the filthy condition of that blanket. I now look back, and think, however could I have lived like that.
Bletchley Park had broken the German Naval Enigma code. Although I did not know then (or for many years afterwards) the source of the information, we regularly received messages from the Admiralty telling us that there were several U boats in our area of the North Atlantic. We had been lead to believe (at signal school) that such information could only be obtained from DF (direction finding) bearings of these U-boats by allied shore stations. Since my job was to listen on U boat frequencies, and I did not hear any of these U boats, I thought someone was making it all up. It did not occur to me that this information was being obtained direct from German U boat headquarters who were positioning their submarines unaware that Bletchley was breaking the enigma code and listening in.
We spent many trips on convoy escort or “support group” duties. I now appreciate that support groups were the consequence of the breaking of the enigma code, their purpose being to present a threat to the U boats, so that they remained submerged at critical times, and did not spot the convoys heading for Britain. If a convoy was attacked we were available to reinforce the convoy escorts. Now, years later, I can understand and admire the very gifted people in Admiralty who were moving us, the pawns, about on the Atlantic chess board.
During the two weeks before the D Day landings in Normandy in 1944, frigates were detached from the North Atlantic and sailed into Molfre Bay in Anglesey (North Wales) building up a large force.
Three days before the D day landings, in the early morning about 100 ships sailed for the English Channel - it was a wonderful sight to see, 100 sleek frigates sailing into the rising sun in a long line. We arrived in the English Channel to take up our position as the the outer screen for the landings in France, to prevent U boats and E boats getting to the landing craft which were carrying the troops to the beaches.
A few days after the first landings, the German U boats made a big attempt to penetrate the outer screen. The submarines were equipped, in addition to their normal torpedoes, with a few acoustic torpedoes, which were able to follow the sound of a frigates propellers without the U boat using its periscope and disclosing its position. The intention on convoy attacks was to cripple escort ships, leaving the convoy ships to the U boats mercy. Usually an acoustic torpedo would blow the stern off a frigate but our ship was very fortunate that the torpedo when it hit our stern did not explode.
We were able to limp away on just one badly vibrating propeller, unsure exactly what had happened. We managed to reach Falmouth, a diver went down to inspect the stern of the ship confirming that we had been hit by an acoustic torpedo which had failed to explode. However the force of the collision had done damaged to both drives. The ship limped up the Irish Sea at very slow speed and three days later reached Glasgow in Scotland, where she spent six weeks dry docked in Govan shipyard.
During that period, I was sent to Eastbourne Naval Signal School (ex St Bede Meade Girls School) to learn the latest German innovations in Radio communications.
Eastbourne was in the direct path of the doodle bugs, the V1 weapon which Germany had just started to launch against London. Every day and night doodle bugs were flying overhead aimed at the capital.
The allies had perfected a new weapon, called the close proximity fuse, which detonated a shell when a small radar device in the shell indicated that it was close to an aircraft. All the anti-aircraft guns which could be mustered were brought to Sussex, to attempt to shoot the doodle bugs down before they reached London.
Six weeks passed by, and I rejoined my ship in Glasgow. Next day we sailed to link into a new group EG17 based in Greenock at the mouth of the River Clyde. Our first assignment was to join the escort ships around the Normandy landing area.
Cherbourg had just been liberated, and we were one of the first ships to sail into the harbour. The port was a shambles with wrecked ships and buildings. We had to be very careful as the Germans had mined the harbour. We proceeded with our motor boat leading us in very slowly.
During the following few weeks we provided escort to the supply ships sailing from England to France. In early December we had two weeks in harbour, carrying out routine maintenance work. We then rejoined our escort group EG17 in the English Channel to relieve another escort group EG1 (leader HMS Affleck).
Crowded English Channel
The Sinking of the S.S. Leopoldville .
On December 24, 1944 (Christmas Eve) 763 American soldiers lost their lives when the troopship S.S. Leopoldville was sunk by a German submarine off Cherbourg France.
Incredibly, the tragic story of the Leopoldville was kept secret by the U.S. and British governments. Even the families who lost loved ones that night were never told the truth.
i personally new nothing of this happening just over the horizon.
EG17 had joined up with EG1 escort group on 24th December (Christmas Eve) to find that EG1 had had a very good sonar contact on the U boat which had sunk the Leopoldville. The Senior Officer in charge of this group took over command of both groups. He was senior to our Group leader. (twelve ships altogether). Christmas Eve and Christmas day were spent sweeping the sea with our sonar devices, dropping lots of depth charges.
U-boats now had the snorkel device (a hinged arm which allowed them to remain submerged, taking in air through the snorkel to run their diesel engines and recharge their batteries). They were able to remain submerged for as long as their diesel fuel lasted and as long as they remained undetected. The submarine had now become a true Undersea-boat (U-boat). Also the Germans had developed shortburst radio transmissions. These transmissions were beyond intercept potential with the equipment carried on our frigates.
The American navy sent out motor torpedo boats from Cherbourg. Supply ships into Cherbourg were also crossing in our vicinity The sea was now too crowded with ships for the sonars to be able to distinguish a U boat.
The comparatively shallow English Channel with many ancient wrecks (providing hideouts for a U boat) is a very poor location to operate sonar, and the sonar (asdic) operators were presented with a confusing number of echoes.
On Boxing day I was on the upper deck having just drawn the rum ration for the communication mess deck, when there was a terrific explosion on the next ship on our port side. HMS Capel was hidden by a big cloud of smoke. She had been hit by a torpedo. Undoubtedly her magazine had blown up as the explosion was much larger than one would expect from a simple torpedo hit.
Action stations alarm was sounded, and I hastened to my action station which was an electronically screened enclosure (with just room for 1 man and the radio direction euipment) inside the chartroom. Under North Atlantic conditions I would listen out for U-boat transmissions and if I heard one, quickly find the direction the signal had come from.
I had a loudspeaker in my cubicle, which played the transmissions between the captains of the frigates.
It was half past two in the afternoon when the skipper of HMS Affleck came on the radio shouting “I’m hit, I’m hit”. He had been struck by an acoustic torpedo.
(HMS Capel sank with the loss of 90 lives. HMS Affleck lost 9 members of her crew).
The U boat evaded the escort vessels and returned to base during the next few days.
[ German Admiralty records show that the submarine involved was the U486 (captain Lieutenant Meyer). She had already sunk the troopship Leopoldville on 24th December in which 763 American troops were lost plus Belgium captain and some Congolese crew members. U486 was eventually sunk off Shetland with all her crew on 12th April 1945 by British submarine HMS Tapir.]
End of the war in Europe
Four months later the war in Europe was over. We were in Plymouth at the time, and immediately the three radio operator who were trained in German radio practices were transfered to Signal School at Glenholt near Plymouth We were to learn about Japanese radio practices and the Japanese morse code. (We expected to be posted to a radio station in the far east which was tasked with intercepting Japanese radio traffic)
The Japanese written system, required a lot more characters than the western system. By adding symbols called “bars”, “nigeries”, and “hamnigeries” to the Morse alphabet, they were able to multiply 26 by power 4 making a lot more characters available.
I still remember the longest Morse character ever, called Z bar hamnigery
(Z _ _.. Bar_ hamnigery..__.). It was not necessary to be able to understand Japanese or even to know the shape of the Japanese character.
We wrote down the shorthand notation and the linguistic people who would read the intercept would translate into the appropriate Japanese character (Z bar hamnigery shorthand was a Z with a line over it followed by a small dot or circle high up).
However, our learning of the Japanese Morse code was not required. The Japanese surrendered before we could be sent to the Far East.
The Japanese war ended on 14th August 1945. I was 21 years old two days later on 16th August 1945. 21 was the age when one became an adult. I was now old enough to vote.
I was demobilised from the Navy in 1946
What experience lingers in my mind most? Just a simple thrill, part of life in the North Atlantic. In rough weather with a heavy swell and a rolling ship, the moment when the water cleared on the starboard side and the dash forward before the next heavy swell swamped the upper deck again. Sometimes you timed it wrong and got a real soaking.
What event surprised most. Picking up survivors from an American ships lifeboat, in stormy weather, to have the first man climbing on board actually smoking a big cigar.
Something to look forward to. The supply of new bread, after the old bread had turned green and was no longer acceptable. On one occasion the cook decided to try his hand at making bread. The new bread the cook turned out was heavenly, but it was a one off, the cook decided he did not have the time to attempt it again. Today we would think his bread very basic. It did not last long, and it was hard biscuits thereafter.
On the one occasion when we were in company with an escort aircraft carrier, we were given a new supply from the carriers galley, which restored our storeroom bread locker for a whole week.
We once picked up a supply of bread from an American base in Argentia, Newfoundland. It was pure white, we had not seen such white bread since before the war. It was like eating cake.
I still remember the German shore station Radio call-signs. You got to know them by the rhythm (not by thinking individual letters) and some of them were almost musical to your mind. If I find it difficult to fall asleep at night, I sometimes think these rhythms and sleep comes soon. How strange.
A piece of music from the war, We had a turntable which was able to play records throughout the messdecks. We had 6 records. The one which sticks in my mind was “so tired” by Russ Morgan. It still haunts me.
Inside my mind today there is a young fellow who keeps telling me " be careful, remember you are in your eighties". I never take him seriously.