I was born at Wilton, near Salisbury on 10th January, 1918 and fulfilled my boyhood ambition when I entered the Royal Navy on 3rd February, 1936. Initial training followed - 8 weeks of "square bashing" followed by 8 weeks' mechanical training in all the various types of machinery we were likely to encounter once we were posted. Following this the group that I had been through training with were arranged into classes of 32 men to await posting to a ship. I was assigned to Benbow class. In due course we were told that at least 3 of the classes were to be drafted to H.M.S. Hood. Thus it was that on 7th September, 1936 I joined Hood.
I stayed together with most of my mates from training for over two years in Hood and when I finally left at least 70 of them were still on the ship.
Normally my day station was in the Hood's middle engine room. She had three engine rooms in all. As a junior Stoker my duties usually involved tending various machines and making sure that they were working correctly. The machines included:
Dynamos which were used to generate electricity for use throughout the ship.
Carbon Dioxide machinery which was used for making ice and cooling the ship's magazines.
Evaporators which were used to make fresh water from seawater. Demand for fresh water was never ending in a ship like Hood. Not only was it used for the boilers but also for the day to day needs of the crew of over 1,000. Water was needed on board for everything from drinking to washing.
Many hydraulic systems
Hood had 24 boilers arranged in four groups of six boilers each. The boilers were normally cleaned in a 21-day cycle. There was a special team for this work. One set of 6 boilers would be closed down for maintenance and the ship would operate on the other 3 sets if we were at sea. The normal "economical cruising speed" was 12 knots and Hood would make this speed on 3 sets of boilers without any difficulty.
Progression from Stoker 2 to Stoker 1 came through training and familiarity with the various machines. Your Divisional Officer would occasionally grade you in a book that formed part of your records. The grades ran "Superior", "Very Good", "Good", "Satisfactory" and "Unsatisfactory". I was fortunate enough to be graded "Superior" throughout my time in the Navy. To progress to Stoker 1 You had to take a test, although I cannot recall anyone ever failing it.
Being such a large ship it was impossible to mix socially with many of the crew so you tended to find yourself with a small group of close friends. I remember three or four shipmates in particular with whom I share many runs ashore - "Taffy" Thomas, Charlie Scrammell and "Kab" Calloway. I also had a friend in H.M.S. Barham, Howard Blake, whom I had known from my school days. When Hood and Barham berthed at the same port I would meet him for a drink whenever possible. Howard was in signals in the Navy but later joined the Fleet Air Arm as a Pilot Officer and eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. I stayed in touch with him during the war and for a while afterwards but then, unfortunately, we lost contact.
Howard's achievement of joining the Fleet Air Arm had been am ambition of my own but I was told that the Navy has invested too much time and money training me to release me to the FAA.
In the quieter off duty moments in Hood I used to try my hand at swinging Indian clubs on the Boat Deck. I also remember many swimming races taking place along the side of the ship. I was fortunate enough to get myself onto the crew of one of the cutters and we used to compete in the 3-mile races. The less formal races were arranged between groups within Hood. A crew of Stokers would take on a crew of Seamen or Marines. More serious races were between Hood and other ships. I never managed to get myself onto an inter-ship team though.
The Spanish Civil War dominated political events during my time in Hood and I well remember the time when we raced from Gibraltar to the North Coast of Spain. There had been an incident between the British merchant ship "Thorpehall" and some of General Franco's Insurgent ships. Hood was ordered north to try to ensure that there was no further trouble. British merchant ships were making regular runs from St. Juan de Luz to the Spanish Port of Bilbao which, at that time, was still in the hands of the Loyalists. Although Franco had not declared a blockade he had his suspicions about the cargo the merchantmen were carrying and his ships would sometimes challenge one of the British vessels. Some of the crew in Hood shared Franco's suspicions about the cargoes being run but we were there to ensure freedom of passage of the British ships on the high seas.
We got up to St. Juan de Luz just as another small convoy of British ships was being assembled. One of the merchant Captains, known to the men in Hood as "Potato Jones", indicated that he was going to make the run to Bilbao. Sure enough there was an incident as "Potato Jones" approached the port of Bilbao, but Hood's presence seemed just enough to tip the balance against the Insurgents taking action and Jones managed to get through. Bilbao itself fell to the Insurgent forces fairly soon afterwards so that was the end of that situation.
Our next journey took us to an event that stands out in my mind as the highlight of my time in Hood. From the tension of Northern Spain, we steamed back to home waters to attend the King's Review of the Fleet. On the way back to Portsmouth we were taught to cheer the naval "Hurrah" rather than the "common Hurray".
During the review itself I manned the ships side about the Quarterdeck. After the Review I was lucky enough to get 7 days leave which cemented my memory of that time!
During my last 12 months in Hood I was an Auxiliary Watchkeeper - again in the Middle Engine Room. Duty as an Auxiliary Watchkeeper was a stepping stone to further promotion so men who wanted to progress would volunteer for such duty. It involved a different pattern of working shifts or "watches". An Auxiliary Watchkeepers worked in teams of four. Each team of four was divided into two pairs and each pair did 12 hours on and 12 hours off. We would be responsible for whatever equipment had been allocated to us by the Engineering Officer of the Watch. To qualify as an Auxiliary Watchkeeper we had to undergo a period on training. This entailed working with existing crew on Auxiliary watches for a period of about 3 months. Following this you had an examination and, if successful, you would gain your Auxiliary Watchkeeping certificate.
Whilst on Auxiliary Watches in Hood I remember the Lieutenant (E) in charge of the watch was Lieutenant Louis Le Bailly who later progressed to the rank of Vice Admiral. After the war he wrote a book "The Man around the Engine" about his wartime experiences - including his time in Hood.
After our return from England to the Mediterranean Admiral Blake was taken ill with a heart attack and was taken off the ship under medical supervision to convalesce.
Blake was replaced by Andrew B Cunningham who was later to be widely regarded as the foremost British Admiral of the War. Cunningham was initially posted to Hood on a temporary basis until Blake recovered his health. Unfortunately, Blake never recovered sufficiently to resume a post at sea and "ABC" remained the Admiral in Hood for the rest of my time in the ship.
There was also a change of Captain a few months later. Captain Pridham was left us and was replaced by Captain HTC "Hookey" Walker - so named because he had lost his left hand and wore a hook in its place. This of course was the source of much speculation and rumour in the crew. I heard it said that he had a gold hook for Divisions on Sunday but if he did I never caught sight of it myself!
On 10th January, 1939 we sailed for home at the end of Hood's commission. This happened to coincide with my own 21st birthday and I always considered getting home was the best present that I got. The real bonus of reaching that age was that I no longer had to attend the 0700 gym sessions on the upper deck. How fit we all were in those days!
By the time I finally left Hood on 29th November, 1939 I had earned myself a few nicknames: "Nutty" which was attributed to my taste for nut chocolate as well as "Tiddly" and "Blue".
On leaving the ship I went straight to a course held at the Mechanical Training Establishment at Pitt Street, Portsmouth which, if I were successful, would see me become a Leading Hand Petty Officer. The course lasted three months and included a month each on: reciprocating dynamos; carbon dioxide equipment; and hydraulic systems. At the end of the course I took an examination and, having passed, became Leading Hand Petty Officer.
As soon as the course had finished I was ordered to Smith's Docks, Middlesborough where my new ship H.M.S. Gladiolus was due to be launched and commence her sea trials before being commissioned into the Royal Navy. Gladiolus was the first of what was to become a famous class of ship - the Flower Class Corvettes. She was launched on 24th January, 1940 and sailed from Middlesborough to Portsmouth undertaking her sea trials whilst on the voyage. After leaving the largest ship in the fleet I was, of course, struck by the contrast in size of everything in Gladiolus. In Hood with her 24 boilers and three engine rooms I was just a part of large team of stokers which kept the machinery of the ship running smoothly. In Gladiolus I often found myself in sole charge of the boiler room.
The seas had always impressed me - even in the Mighty Hood there were times when the swell was so great that you would lose sight of other ships in the flotilla apart from their topmasts. The effects of the seas were even more pronounced in the little Gladiolus of course.
After being commissioned Gladiolus was posted to convoy work and submarine hunting duties in the Western Approaches. As I said, Gladiolus was the first of the corvettes. On 1st July, 1940 she also became the first to sink a German U-boat when she claimed U26 off the South West Coast of Ireland.
After 8 months Gladiolus returned to Smith's Docks, Birkenhead for a refit. Her Foc's'le was to be extended back to the bridge. She also had a quantity of pig iron added to counterbalance this alteration. Following this she underwent a series of tilt tests in the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal.
In the early summer of 1941 I was informed that I was to leave Gladiolus. There were too many leading hands on her and as one of the juniors I was among 5 men chosen leave the ship.
On leaving Gladiolus I was posted to join H.M.S. Vetch - another Flower class Corvette. Vetch was yet to be launched so I returned to Middlesborough to join her as I had done with Gladiolus.
Within 3 months of joining Vetch came more tragic news. Gladiolus had been sunk with all hands by U558 on 16th October, 1941. She had been escorting convoy SC48 in the North Atlantic. The circumstances surrounding her loss are not clear. The majority of accounts state that she was sunk by U558 but I did wonder whether her seaworthiness suffered during the refit. It was in my mind that she may have executed an emergency manoeuvre across the swell and capsized.
I really did consider myself to be very lucky at this point. Both of my two previous ships had been sunk within 6 months of one another. Over 1,500 men had been lost and only the 3 from Hood had survived. The leading hands who had remained in Gladiolus because of their seniority over me had all been lost with the ship.
I was to spend most of the remainder of my wartime service in Vetch. Initially she was used on convoy duties and not long after I joined her she became part of the 36th Escort Group. In October 1941 the Group was put under the command of the famous Johnny Walker at that time a Commander but later to rise to the rank of Captain. Walker had been an Anti-submarine specialist before the war but had been passed over for promotion during the early years of the war. With his posting to command 36th Escort Group he saw his chance to prove the worth of some of his novel anti-submarine tactics. By the end of the war he had become the most successful submarine-hunting Captain in the Royal Navy but many of the men considered him to be a very hard and ruthless man.
Amongst the convoys that Vetch took part in was HG76. This convoy was to give Walker his first chance to test some of his ideas and still stands out in my memory. The details have, of course, only been filled in during the post was years but the story runs something like this:
HG76 formed up outside Gibraltar during the second week of December 1941 and sailed on 14th of that month. There were 32 ships in the convoy. Protection was by the 36th Escort Group under Commander Walker and consisted of the sloops "Stork" (Walker) and Deptford along with Vetch and 6 other corvettes. We also had 3 destroyers including the destroyer "Stanley" - one of Churchill's 50 American destroyers - plus two more modern craft of this type. For air support were had the Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier Audacity. During the first part of our journey we would be additionally protected by part of Force H stationed at Gibraltar.
The convoy set sail on 14th December, knowing that enemy attacks were likely - U-boats had recently been concentrated in the area of Gibraltar and our movements had been tracked by German agents in Spain. The reinforcements from Force H which we had during the first part of our voyage soon proved invaluable as Nestor sank U127 off Cape St. Vincent. During the next couple of days the convoy was tracked by Focke Wulf aircraft operating out of occupied France as we made our way slowly northwards.
Early on 17th December an aircraft from auxiliary aircraft carrier Audacity made contact with a U -boat to the west of the convoy. Walker in H.M.S. Stork, the three destroyers and a corvette set off to hunt. They managed to force the U-boat (U131) to the surface where she was abandoned by her crew and scuttled. An aircraft from Audacity was lost in this engagement when it was shot down by the U-boat as it came down to join the attacking ships.
During the night we were, though unaware of this at the time, tracked by U434. She was spotted in the morning light by Stanley. Assisted by Blakeney she attacked and, again the U-boat was forced to the surface, abandoned and sunk. Following this Blakeney and Exmoor returned to Gibraltar. Later during the same day, 18th December, there was a further contact. Stanley and two corvettes drove off the U-boat but were unable to locate it for a concerted attack. The boat continued to track the convoy during the night and just before 4.00am an attack on the convoy was made. Stanley, which was stationed at the rear of the convoy, reported torpedoes had been fired. Walker ordered "Buttercup". This was one of his new tactics for increasing the effectiveness of convoys in hunting and attacking U-boats. "Buttercup" involved a concerted attack on the U-boats by ships of the Escort Group. On receipt of the order the ships would turn together on a prearranged bearing to chase the U-boat. It was hoped that the concerted attack would help overcome the difficulty of locating U-boats due to the limited range of the Asdic submarine detection equipment. In the case of this attack, as we were still in darkness, starshell were fired to illuminate the area in an attempt to locate the U-boat. As the supporting ships approached Stanley to lend assistance the latter was torpedoed and exploded. The hunt for the U-boat, which turned out to be U574, continued and depth charges were fired. The attack was successful in bringing U574 to the surface where upon Stork chased in an attempt to finish it off. The chase was eventually successful as Stork rammed the U-boat forcing the German it to be abandoned.
Whilst this action was taking place U751 had penetrated the front of the convoy and had managed to torpedo one of the merchant ships - SS Ruckinge. The crew managed to abandon her before she sank.
The following day the return of the German aircraft showed us that the enemy had not finished their attacks on HG76. Fighters were launched from Audacity and managed to shoot down a couple of the enemy planes.
As we steamed on during 21st December what we had most feared came to pass - German U-boat command sent reinforcements. As darkness fell on 21st Commander Walker decided that it was time to try out another of his novel tactics for drawing the attention of the U-boats away from the vessels of the convoy. The plan was for the convoy to alter course and, as it did so, the escort ships should continue on the original course and stage a "mock battle". Things did not work out as planned however. One of the merchant ships seeing the "action" mistook it for a real attack and started to fire snowflakes. The snowflake illumination provided an ideal opportunity for the U-boats and SS Anavore was attacked and sunk. Audacity, which was also separated from the convoy but on the opposite side of the convoy from the other Escort ships, was also lit up by the snowflakes. U751 located her and hit with 3 torpedoes. The action was not ended for the night however. The Escort vessels had located a U-boat as they steered to rejoin the convoy and had succeeded in sinking it by depth charges. This turned out to be U567. Later, as the Escorting ships were regrouping Deptford failed to see Stork and rammed her about the quarterdeck fortunately without inflicting disabling damage.
Although the night's attacks had ended we continued to be concerned that the Germans would renew their efforts. This fear was heightened by the fact that we no longer had Audacity's aircraft to forewarn us of approaching U-boats and beat off enemy aircraft. However, as we neared the Western Approaches a Liberator of Coastal Command came to provide a screen for us during the final stage of our voyage. As we approached home we could review the success of the convoy. Two merchant vessels had been lost as well as Stanley and Audacity. On the positive side we had sunk four U-boats and Walker's first encounter with the enemy had allowed him to test his methods. The Commodore was certainly satisfied and made a signal to Walker that he had "won a great victory".
Shortly after our return we heard that Commander Walker had been awarded the DSO. He had also been called to the Admiralty to brief Sir Percy Noble on the methods that he had employed during the passage.
The effect on the men was generally less favourable. The uncertainty of convoy work was extremely wearing on the nerves. During the passage it was impossible to grab more than a couple of hours doze. There was no opportunity of any restful sleep - the bell that announced "Action Stations" could, and would, ring at any time of the day or night.
This was brought home to me when we were at Liverpool following a convoy passage. For the first time in some weeks I thought that I could get a decent night's sleep. However, in the morning when the alarm bell went off I leapt out of bed, grabbed my clothes, dressed and headed for the door when I was interrupted by my wife saying, "what on earth are you doing, Dick?" In my mind I was still on the ship and the Action Stations alarm had just sounded. It had become a completely automatic reaction and was a sign of the high state of nervous tension in which we all lived our lives in those days.
The New Year of 1942 saw the 36th Escort Group back on convoy duty. CG78 was taken to Gibraltar and another convoy escorted back. Walker was still in command of the escort ships but on this occasion operated from Pelican as Stork was in for repairs following the ramming of U574 and the accidental collision with Deptford. This run was uneventful as was the next one - again to Gibraltar then back with HG80.
On 12th April we sailed from Liverpool with HG82. This was a convoy that would prove particularly memorable for us in Vetch. Two days after sailing we were warned that U-boats had been reported as operating in the area of the convoy. During the evening of 14th April Vetch was at the front of the convoy with Walker, now back in Stork, bringing up the rear. Vetch's radar identified a U-boat off the port side of the convoy and we turned to investigate. Starshell were fired and we sighted the boat - which turned out to be U252. The U-boat was about a mile away from Vetch and closing on the convoy. When they saw Vetch approaching the enemy fired torpedoes, which missed Vetch by a very narrow margin indeed - a matter of feet. In Stork, Walker had seen the starshell and had rushed up to join the action. A chase ensued in which both Stork and Vetch fired depth charges. Eventually wreckage was sighted on the water confirming that the attacks had been successful. It was Vetch's first confirmed kill and there was much excitement on the ship. Vetch's commanding officer signalled Stork asking permission to "splice the mainbrace". Walker agreed. This was to start a custom in the ships Walker commanded and thereafter the order to "splice the mainbrace" was made after every U-boat success.
More congratulations followed on our return home including messages from the First Sea Lord and the Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches. Walker was to receive the first of the bars to his DSO.
Later in the war Vetch operated in the Mediterranean where we were used to support the North African landings. As the Allied Armies pushed the Germans back towards Tunis Vetch was used to supply ports such as Mers-el-Kebir and Bone as they were liberated. We also had our share of escort duties - helping convoys to make a safe passage through the Western Mediterranean.
After I left Vetch I saw out my wartime service in the old destroyer "Whitshed" a veteran ship built in 1918. Most of Whitshed's work was in the North Sea and around Norway. The thing that stands out most about my time in Whitshed is that I lost part of one of my fingers when I got it trapped in a hatch.
On leaving Whitshed I was informed that I was to be posted to Australia along with a group of about 40 other men. Our instructions about our port of departure were not clear however, and this led to a remarkable chase around the country as we tried to ascertain where we were supposed to muster for departure. Initially we were sent by train to Glasgow. But when we got there we were told that he knew nothing of us. We were advised to head on to Lamlash on the Isle of Skye. When we got there we were again told that we were not in the right place. By this time we were having to fend for ourselves for basic necessities such as food and were living off the generosity of local cafes! Eventually the group was notified that they should have departed from Southampton but that the ship had already sailed without them.
I never did get to Australia which was very fortunate for me on a personal level as I got to see my 13 month old son who died soon afterwards
I saw out my service in Victory at Portsmouth. This was a staff job in the Regulating Branch of the Engine Room Department.
I left the Royal Navy on 3rd February 1948 and returned to my former trade of retailing. Initially I worked for Timothy Whites and then their parent company Boots the Chemist from 1968 until my retirement.
When the Hood Association was formed in 1975 I was one of the founder members and have enjoyed many happy reunions since then. At the moment I am on the Association's Committee which gives me the chance to meet up with some old shipmates each month.