-H.M.S. Hood Crew Information-
Autobiography of Robert Philpott
By Robert Philpott
Updated 13-May-2014

This article was written by former Hood crewman and long time H.M.S. Hood Association member, Robert Philpott in a letter to Paul Bevand. The article captures wonderfully the experience of a young man joining the Royal Navy in the 1930s and Robert's feeling of pride of having served in H.M.S. Hood which remained as strong as ever until he passed away on 20 April 2009. He is greatly missed by his comrades.

Chainbar divider

Robert Philpott as a Ganges boyWhy did I join the Royal Navy? Glamour I think. I was in the OTC at school and enjoyed the parades in army uniform, marching through the town behind our band to the fields for exercises; the summer camps with other schools. A service career appealed, but the long route marches at Aldershot and Salisbury Plain were tedious and army food and facilities in camp off-putting. Most of my childhood summers were spent by, on, or in the sea, including trips in a pilot cutter to meet the ships from far away places, so I had a hankering to be a sailor. The RN seemed to offer the best of both worlds. At 15, with the grudging consent of my parents, I joined up.

Train to Harwich, then by boat across the water to Shotley Barracks, H.M.S. Ganges. I had just left OTC camp, sleeping 8 to a bell tent on a straw mattress. At Shotley a real bed in an airy mess with 30 odd other recruits, my short army style haircut reduced to a fuzz, no more hated puttees which were either too tight or came down during route marches, and into a wonderfully comfortable Navy uniform with a big blue jean collar which, on leave, attractive girls thronged to touch, for luck... and a new mother. Our chief petty officer told us that perhaps we were missing our mothers and, he bellowed, “I’m your mother now!” That’s also what our regimental sergeant major told us at OTC camp. We survived.

Next morning, and every morning, we climbed the 150-foot mast. Up the ratlines, out over the daunting devil’s gangway, up the next lot, over and down the other side, in less than 3 minutes I think. Our instructor used the persuasive powers of his stroniky to help us on our way. This piece of hemp which we used as an aid when learning knots and splices was remarkably effective when applied across one’s buttocks and an inspiration to be among the first to climb the mast and therefore out of range. Fortunately, having had a passion for climbing trees from early childhood, the mast held no terrors for me, as it did for many. Particularly when going out over the devil’s gangway, held on by hands alone. The very top, up the Jacob’s ladder, shin up the pole and stand on the swaying button was not part of the exercise. This was purely optional and permission had to be sought. Not in working hours. I think most of us had a go, if only to say that we had done it. Getting up was not too bad, and the lightening conductor gripped between your calves was reassuring. It was exhilarating to be up there. The view was magnificent. Getting down was a different matter. It needed an effort of will to bend down to grab the top of the conductor, wriggle to a position lying on your stomach over the button while wriggling into position to slide down to the top of the Jacob’s ladder. On ceremonial occasions the mast would be manned, with boys out on the yards as well as all up the ratlines. The button boy would salute as the guard presented arms.

I loved the pageantry of these occasions. One such was the Silver Jubilee of His Majesty King George V. Our officers wore their dress uniforms with cocked hats and frock coats, golden epaulettes on their shoulders, swords and medals. Our own divisional officer, a lieutenant commander, looked magnificent, and I decided then that I wanted to become one myself. Sadly, by the time I achieved this, ceremonial dress had long been phased out. The Royal Marine band with their white helmets always looked splendid and I continue to be thrilled as their drums start to play and the band moves forward to Heart of Oak or Life on the Ocean Wave.

We had Divisions every morning, with the Royal Marine Band and the colour guard drawn up with fixed bayonets. At times I was in this and our GI would be there with his cutlass drawn. On one occasion he put the point of it against my chest and threatened to run it through me if I didn’t stop plaguing him.

When the bugle sounded for divisions we had to stand to attention. The second it stopped 2,000 boys would rush on to the parade ground to their respective positions. On one such occasion I was looking for my name on an exam results board as the bugle went, and lingered for a moment after it stopped. In consequence I spent many weary hours with other defaulters doubling round with a rifle above my head, and as part of a working party in the PO’s mess while the other boys went to cinema in the gym. It was unfortunate that we accidentally swapped the sugar for salt and got into other mischief to torment our oppressors. High-spirited young boys were a danger to their sanity.

On bath days we had to proceed down the covered way to the bathhouse. The duty watch scrubbing the covered way delighted in turning the hoses on to our nether parts, so it was easier to run down naked. Except for caps. We always had to wear caps in case we passed an officer.

Like all Ganges boys I am very proud of having been part of all that. The discipline was firm, but it did us good. We learned to take care of ourselves and each other and when we joined the Fleet we had a background to be proud of It gave us self-confidence, as well as a sound training in the skills needed to cope with life at sea and with life generally.

On my 16th birthday I was drafted to H.M.S. Hood. Every sailor’s dream draft. And it felt like a dream as I walked up the gangway with my hammock and kit bag. Next to us lay the Royal Yacht, Victoria & Albert. Pipes and bugles sounded and we stood to attention and watched as King George V and Queen Mary walked up the gangway and were piped over the side. What a thrilling start.

Our hammocks were a work of art, lashed to perfection, clews and lashings beautifully whipped, pointed and grafted. At the appointed hour they were slung above the mess deck and we climbed in — or tried to. That was not part of our training. We hoisted ourselves up and swung on to the hammock; but it closed up. Desperately trying to hold on with one hand while we groped underneath with the other we eventually managed to squeeze in and drop exhausted inside. Such bliss, swinging to the movement of the ship, soon asleep. And then to turn over. As we turned the hammock turned, and we dropped out, or were held suspended by our buttocks until we dropped to the deck below. Exhausted by the effort we tried to sleep where we fell, but were soon commanded to get back in. Next day we made stretchers to keep the hammock open, and quickly learned the art of turning.

Hood carried a schoolmaster, distinguished by the blue between his gold rings, and school lessons were a regular part of our training. We also learned to chew tobacco and to spit accurately into the spit kids which were placed in position on the pipe “Stand easy, place spit kids” And then “Out Pipes, clean out and stow away spit kids” Not so nice if you were duty watch. But I was a callboy, wearing a silver chain instead of a lanyard, and was usually scurrying about piping rather than cleaning out. In harbour we were on duty on the quarterdeck ready to pipe on board visiting captains and admirals. Or to pipe the Still for passing ships. The officer of the watch has to know whether the captain of a passing ship is junior or senior to one’s own. Rarely a problem in a flagship. If we were hoisting or lowering boats we had to be in attendance to convert the bosun’s orders into the appropriate pipe, the shrill whistle being more readily heard. I think there were 28 different calls we were taught at Ganges, 14 of which had to be securely known before we were awarded out bosun’ s call and chain. The longest and most used was hands to dinner.

Sometimes bars were fitted to the capstan and one of the massive anchors was weighed by hand, with a fiddler playing a merry tune as we went round and round.

We sailed to Portland to muster for the usual fleet exercises around Scapa Flow. Battleships, battle cruisers, cruisers, destroyers joining to the flurry of pipes and bugles, admirals’ barges and other craft scurrying to and fro. I was a bowman in the second picket boat, a brass funnelled steam driven vessel commanded by a midshipman of about my age. I was envious, but proud as I stood in the bows with my boat hook.

Then Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, and the fleet, instead of going to Scapa, headed south across the Bay of Biscay. It was a wonderful thrilling sight, all these mighty warships with their escorting destroyers. The Commander in Chief flying his flag in Nelson heading one column, our own admiral heading another. I was so proud to be part of it. Onward, past Gibraltar into the med. There to be met by the light grey ships of the Mediterranean Fleets. The sound of gunfire and bugles as the commanders in chief exchanged salutes

We could and should have settled Mussolini’s little game, and given a clear warning to Hitler. But the politicians got cold feet.

Hood tied up to the North Mole in Gibraltar harbour and our training and education continued. As part of our education some of us were taken by our instructor across the border into Spain to visit a brothel, we chatted to madam and the girls, but were not allowed to sample the goods on offer.

Runs ashore in Gibraltar were fun and we were looking forward to a visit to Madeira. Life was good and exciting.

Then I received a shattering communication from my parents. It was time I considered my future. Arrangements had been made for me to be articled to a firm of chartered accountants in Birmingham with a view to partnership on qualifying. Bewildered, I sought guidance from my divisional officer. He said it seemed a wonderful opportunity and advised me to comply. So while Hood sailed down to Madeira, I with a heavy heart boarded a home going liner as a passenger.

Black jacket, striped trousers, starched white shirt, called sir instead of BOY!!

Study every night. Oh how I missed the companionship of the mess deck, the thrill of life on board, the fun ashore. Office and student life was an alien world to which I felt I did not belong.

And then the war came. As an articled clerk I could have claimed exemption, but with a whoop of joy I went back to sea. I volunteered to join the pay branch, but was told that as a trained seaman I was needed more there. A kind drafting officer put me back on the Hood; we sailed to Gibraltar and tied up against the North mole where I had left her all those years before.

It was like coming home. I had first joined her on my 16th birthday. Now it was my 21st, but I was too shy to tell anyone and did not even get sippers.

Robert Philpott in 1951My main memories of the next few months were the sad bombardment of the French fleet at Oran, the forays against the Italian fleet. The constant air attacks, mainly directed against the Ark Royal, which accompanied us and was frequently invisible in the clouds of smoke and splashes. It was amusing to hear Lord Hawhaw on the radio constantly proclaiming that she was sunk and to see her in her usual spot astern of us. I think Ted has described Hood’s activities at this time from his more privileged position as a signalman. My action station was down in the magazine where the smell of cordite made me feel sick. As a potential officer my job was to pull a handle every time the bell rang which would propel the bag of cordite ready in the chute into the handling room on the start of its journey to the guns. Previously, as a boy, I had been up in the TS (Transmitting Station) sending vital information down to the gun turrets. My wartime memory of action was the dull thud of the guns and feeling so awful. The fact that if she was sunk there was not a hope of getting out was not my concern

In due course we returned to the UK and in Scapa I was delighted to be once more a bowman in a picket boat, the lovely brass funnel which we had worked on so hard as boys now a dark grey. In coming alongside a sudden wave washed over the bows and swept me with it. I was wearing Wellingtons (forbidden) and promptly sank. However I managed to kick them off and rose to the surface to be thrown a heaving line from the quarterdeck. With the skill and practice drummed into me at Ganges I quickly tied a bowline round my waist and was hauled up to the deck where the officer of the watch got soaked hauling me on board.

At some stage we went to Liverpool where a family friend with a house overlooking the Mersey, wired my mother that it was lovely to watch the big ships come in, wire time of arrival. Mother was up like a shot, and seeing some white cap ribboned sailors entering a café promptly joined them. She asked if they knew me. When they returned on board, I was duty watch and had not been ashore, they told me to my surprise that they had been bought tea by my mother and had a long chat with her. Shortly after that I was summoned to the regulating office at the double, handed the telephone and spoke to her. She had telephoned the admiralty and asked how, knowing her son was on a large warship, which had just come into Liverpool, she could contact me. After providing some details she was told to ring a certain number.

The ship was in Rosyth for essential repairs when I and the other half dozen or so white ribboned ordinary seaman got our draft chits and bade her a fond farewell.

By May 41 I had been appointed to a corvette based on the Clyde and I had gone up to Glasgow shopping. The ship’s postman had also gone to Glasgow to collect the mail. He came across me standing transfixed staring in disbelief at a placard, which said: HOOD SUNK. In his hand was a telegram from my parents commiserating with me on the loss of my much loved ship.

My last spell in her had been as a CW rating. With our white cap ribbons we never really integrated into the ship’s company, but tended to form a group of our own, suffering together the constant surveillance, the feeling that we were always being watched, reported on, our every move observed to see that we had “officer like qualities”. We left the ship together for the next stage of our career. Those who had been boys with me had all seemingly moved on. Consequently I never really knew those who were lost. But it was still with a feeling of great sadness that the ship which had been such an important part of my life had gone.