Royal Navy – WW2 The Early years

We were due to finish our commission and go home when War was declared, so we were relocated to be with the South Atlantic Fleet. This is where we were when the battle between HMS Exeter, HMNZS (New Zealand) Achilles, and HMS Ajax against the Graf Spee took place, which resulted in her being crippled and taking refuge in Montevideo. Owing to intelligence reports intercepted by the Germans they believed a large fleet was lying in wait for the Graf Spee once it left port. This ultimately led Captain Langsdorf to scuttle his ship just outside of Rio. We were the first ship to visit the ports of Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro after the Graf Spee had been scuttled and we were made very welcome. I have photos of the scuttling of the Graf Spee, of Captain Langsdorf and of the German burial parties for the men of the Graf Spee.

Graf Spee Aerial photoGraf Spee Scuttling - 7Graf-Spee-7Graf Spee Scuttling - 6Graf Spee Scuttling - 5Graf Spee Scuttling - 2Graf Spee Scuttling - 4Graf Spee Scuttling - 3

Graf Spee Burial PartyCaptain Langsdorf of the Graf Spee

When we arrived in England from the Far East, we went to Portsmouth, where we saw a lot of bomb destruction in the shipyard. I was given leave and on arrival home I found that Ninian (my Brother) had been killed on an armed merchant cruiser at Weymouth. On my way home I found Jess’s address in my ditty box so I dropped her a short letter. Little did I know that she was now in London. The postman in Sunderland knew of her address and forwarded the letter to her. This is how we got in touch again, which began a correspondence that continued until our marriage.

On arriving back from leave I was promoted to Acting Petty Officer. As the ship was manned by regular Royal navy sailors, 50% were drafted off the ship and replaced by “hostilities” (war time only) who would have only trained just before going to sea. On one of the training stints at sea with CPO Spratley, he sent for me, saying “You have seen the covered up object on ‘B’ turret? I would like you to test it for me as it is a new part of our armament. It is a U.P. (Un-bored Projectile) unit to fire against attacking aircraft.” On closer inspection it consisted of 24 units – 12 painted green and 12 painted red, so that when lined up to the ship facing forward the green was to port and the red was to starboard. It could only bear to the beam forward of the bridge on either side and was loaded with rockets. The rockets each had an explosive charge that exploded when they reached a certain height permitting a parachuted smaller charge to drift downwards and if an aircraft came into that area and hit the parachute line the charge would be drawn downwards and explode on the wing or body. I eventually carried out trials with a hat and full body cover. I found that when I fired the flash back was quite frightening. I never did find out if it became an accepted form of defense given to other ships.

On finishing our trials we were sent to Scapa Flow, the fleet anchorage in northern Scotland. Our designated patrol area was the North Atlantic and areas of convoy sailings. We were at our northern area, about 72 degrees north, when we received information that the Scharnost and Gneisenau were both at sea. A county class cruiser had made contact but the weather was so bad that they kept losing it due to fog. We went to full action stations in case they tried to double back to either a Norwegian port or their homeport. It was also reported that HMS Hood had engaged the German navy ship the Bismark but within a few minutes the startling news came through that the Hood had been sunk. This really shook our ships company. As the day progressed we found out that only 3 persons had been rescued of which one was a future friend – a signalman I met a few years later at Portsmouth.

We continued on our northern patrol 72 North in the Greenland Sea and Denmark Straights area. We had been warned that you always wore gloves on the upper deck, because the metal (breakwater) was so cold that if you touched it with your bare hands it would burn you and peel the skin off. To further enhance the danger from the extreme cold the survival time if immersed in the sea was about 3 minutes. It was surprising how fast some of the rigging and guardrails iced up.

On our return to Scapa Flow we had a few days rest and then we were detailed to sail to Glasgow to pick up a detail of the “Green Howards” British Army. On slipping our berth we were informed in company with HMS Glasgow that we were on our way to Norway to a place called Andelsnes. We arrived in the fjord steaming at full speed. The drop area was right at the top of the fjord. The Glasgow was dispatched to Molde, to collect as we later found out, the Norwegian gold reserve. Whilst berthing at our destination we came under attack from high level bombing and Stuka dive-bombing. During these attacks we landed the Green Howards. By the time they had reached the populated area they were engaged by German troops. We dispatched half of our detachment of Royal Marines to assist the Green Howards but before long we were told to slip our berth and proceed to sea. Unfortunately we had to leave some of the Royal Marines detachment who gave us a farewell salute as we departed. We had only managed to pick up a few of the Green Howards, as once again we came under attack from Stukas, who we later thought were directed by Quisling (traitor) Norwegians. We joined the other cruiser and proceeded down the fjord when suddenly there was a mighty explosion between the two cruisers. We were told later that they were probably controlled mines and that they had misjudged the space between the two cruisers. Whilst under attack, Commander Lees controlled the movements of the ship altering course on seeing the release of bombs from the attacking aircraft. He did this by lying on a deckchair and watching the attack through binoculars. We ran the gauntlet back to sea and then back to Glasgow, where we discharged the Green Howards that we had managed to take onboard.