We joined HMS Revenge in January at anchor in Plymouth Sound. Revenge was one of the five R Class battle wagons; Ramillies, Resolution, Royal Sovereign. Royal Oak had already been sunk in Scapa Flow. These ships were unmodernised. Top speed about 21 knots. Main armament eight 15inch guns; secondary armament twelve 6inch in two batteries Port and Starboard; AA eight four inch on four twin mountings; two eight barrelled pom poms; and two 4 barrelled point five inch machine guns.
Revenge was ammunitioning and sailed within a day or two for Greenock and the North Atlantic convoy run to Halifax Nova Scotia. I was lucky in that I was never sea-sick. On my first night at sea I felt a bit queasy and Bing Bingham gave me permission to leave the shell room, my action station, to go on to the upper deck. The fresh air and wind blew the feeling away and I never had it again.
U boats in those early days did not get far out into the Atlantic. The danger was surface raiders as the sinking of the armed merchant cruisers Rawalapindi and Jervis Bay illustrate. Those ships were armed with six inch guns and stood no chance against the 11inch and 8inch of the German warships.
The routine was to escort a convoy from Halifax which was met by destroyers off Northern Ireland escorting an outward bound convoy. Revenge then turned round and escorted that convoy to Halifax., tied up alongside a jetty and took on provisions and oiled. We would be in harbour 48 hours and maybe a bit longer, then off again. Usually two to three weeks at sea.
My cruising station and defence station as a boy was look-out on the ADP (Air Defence Position). The R class had tripod foremasts on which, in the case of Revenge there was an open bridge. Above and abaft that was the ADP which was an open platform, and above that was the spotting top which was enclosed. That was the gunnery officer's action station. If my memory serves me right there were eight lookouts on the ADP, port and starboard, sweeping all sectors with glasses. An officer and petty officer were in charge.
The view from the ADP was quite dramatic, particularly in bad weather. With seas running high it was like mountains and valleys. For a boy just turned seventeen, first ship, to be up there when Revenge seemed to hang on a mountain top, then start to run down the side of the mountain heading for the bottom of the Atlantic, and looking down on the heads of the skipper in his captain's cap and duffel coat and other officers, not a bit concerned, and then the ship digging her bows into the wall of water on the other side of the valley, picking it up and throwing it up over bridge, was truly awe inspiring. When we were in the valley there were no other ships in sight. Then back on the top of the mountain with the convoy, or some of it in sight, we would hang for a moment, and then hell for leather down the other side. As we approached Northern Ireland we would sometimes see a Sunderland flying boat and wave to its crew, and later the American built Catalinas flying round the convoy.
Winter in the North Atlantic 1940 was very cold. The guard rails became solid ice, I have a photograph, and ice hung on the guns. To prevent them freezing up they were layed and trained every half hour.
Although Revenge did not have a loudspeaker system it did have wireless on the messdecks for getting the BBC and a system for records to be played. Operating from Halifax as we did the men responsible for playing records could buy the latest American disks in advance of them reaching the UK. 'Blueberry Hill' was one of them and even today, sixty years later, whenever I hear 'Blueberry Hill' I am carried back to the Revenge escorting a convoy from Halifax.
My action station was B shell room, just below the magazine. Every evening as dusk approached the ship went to action stations. There we practised until the order came down the voice pipe, second degree of readiness. Then watches would be set, I think we did an hour each in pairs, while the others slept. As dawn approached it was back to action stations and practising. And then cruising stations, breakfast, clean ship and quarters clean guns. Practice in a fifteen inch turret meant practising loading the guns. We could load a fifteen inch gun in one minute. That meant getting a one ton shell and four quarter charges from the shell room and magazine up to the gun house to be rammed into the breech.
A fifteen inch turret resembles a mushroom. The gun house and barbette are visible. The stalk or trunk extends to the bilges. The trunk is hollow, with footholds cut into the side for men to climb. Also a knotted rope hangs down the centre. Surrounding this hollow tube is another tube enclosing the port and starboard cages which carry the ammunition to the guns. When the turret revolves this means the entire structure revolves . Consequently, when the guns are trained on the beam the cages are no longer on the port and starboard sides but are fore and aft. The shells lay in rows in shell bins which were sunk into the deck with a coaming two or three feet above the deck. They were picked up and carried by grabs operated by hydraulics. Circling the trunk is a large gear or cog wheel. The port and a starboard cradles are moved round this by hand wheels. The shells are lowered on to the cradles in a fore and aft position, and then lined up with the lift doors, wound into the lift, the lift doors shut and the working chamber below the gunhouse informed. Above the shell cages are cages for the cordite charges loaded by the magazine crew. When the cages were loaded they were whisked up to the working chamber where the charges were pushed to the rear of the shells and sent up to the gun house.
At sea hammocks were not allowed to be slung. Everybody who could, slept at action stations. Exceptions were lookouts and the four inch guns crews who were allowed below where they slept on mess tables and stools, or the deck. The captain, 'Rammer' Archer slept in his sea cabin next to the bridge. In the shell room we slept on the shells, with our caps or lifebelts for pillows. It was bloody cold. But we had make and mend every day at sea.
The captain of B shell room was Petty Officer Bing Bingham. The trunk was towards the after end of the shell room and the lights on the bulkheads were in that area. The result was that the furthest end of the shell room was in perpetual gloom. The ladder down into the shell room was in the area near the trunk.
After reverting to second degree Bing would get his harmonica out and we would have a sing song. As sound carries under water we probably frightened Gerry off. The down side of that was that when the escorts were dropping depth charges it sounded like somebody hitting the hull with a giant hammer. We got used to it. Sometimes as I lay on the shells trying to get to sleep I used to wonder what would happen if we were torpedoed. Escape was impossible. Main hatches were clipped down and only escape hatches letting one man at a time through were open. I imagined the ship going down with lights on and we would be trapped. One night I dreamed we were torpedoed. As the ship sank she turned over and all the shells came tumbling out of the bins. So that was that problem solved.
The gun house crew gained access to the gun house through a hatch under the gun house. In bad weather that was not possible so they came down to the shell room and climbed the trunk. One boy who often came down to the shell room, even in good weather, to climb the trunk was Ginger Frith. He came from Devon or Cornwall and had their distinctive accent. The senior members of the shell room's crew would never allow Ginger to climb the trunk until he sang a song. And always he sang 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine'. Then we would hear the sound of his boots as he dug them into the footholds in the trunk as he climbed to the gunhouse. I did hear that Bing, who I believe came from Portsmouth, was invalided with TB.
In 1940 there were fears of invasion. Revenge sailed for Plymouth where we ammunitioned with a special shell for bombarding. We were at anchor in the Sound when we had our first taste of bombing. A high flying formation came over. Somebody said, "They're ours." then we saw the bombs falling and the bugle was going 'There's a bomber overhead. There's a bomber overhead.' There were no hits or casualties although some bomb splinters came inboard chipping the paintwork. Incidentally, Revenge did not have a loudspeaker system. Orders were transmitted by pipe, call boys and the bosun's mate going round the ship, as well as 'Sticks' the bugler. I was a call boy and later bosun's mate.
I remember arriving in Halifax one morning. At sea we changed from morning to afternoon watch at 12. In harbour 12.30. As bosun's mate in harbour one of my duties was to ring the bell on the quarterdeck. I lost track of the fact that we were no longer at sea, and at 12.30 I rang eight bells. The security killick 'Bomber Thrower' said to me afterwards, "I heard two bells and turned round and you were getting ready to ring another two". We laughed about that but nobody had noticed.
To return to Plymouth. We sailed on 13th September 1940 and bombarded the invasion fleet assembling at Cherbourg. Then we headed for Pompey while at day break the German bombers headed for Plymouth. That must be the time that Pompey was blitzed. The county class cruiser 'Berwick' was in Pompey at the same time. I had a townie, in fact we came from the same street, Danny Wright, on the Berwick, so we had a run ashore. We walked up Queen Street and lost our bearings. The devastation was complete. Aggie Westons, a landmark had gone. We got well and truly drunk and walked, if that's the word, back down Queen Street singing 'Begin the Beguine'at the top of our voices. The best rendering of that song was by Chick Henderson. Forget about Hutch. We couldn't see a thing in the blackout and Danny fell down a bomb hole and lost his cap. There was a little pub at the top of Queen Street, the same side as the Victory and near the corner with Commercial Rd. It was only a small bar and it was always packed with Matelots. Its walls were covered with cap tallies. I wonder what happened to them. They would be a real history.
In November we had four days leave from Plymouth. Either the first or second day we got telegrams to report back on board in Greenock. The AMC (Armed merchant cruiser) Jervis Bay had been sunk on 5 November by the Admiral Scheer.
On Saturday the 24 May 1941 we were in Halifax and I had the morning watch as for'ard gangway sentry. Shortly after 4 am an oiler came alongside. The timing was unusual. Oilers never came alongside until the time was approaching for us to leave harbour and we had only just got in. So I knew that we were under sailing orders sooner than we had expected. I know now that at 5.56am on Saturday 24 May 1941 the Bismarck sank the Hood. We were at sea when a buzz went round the ship that the Hood had gone down. We speculated as to whether it was a U boat or dive bombers that sank her. Later we were told that the Bismarck was out and that we had to intercept her if she took a westward course. Then we learned that Bismarck had sunk the Hood. A very thick fog came down and we were steaming through it sounding our siren. Then we learned that we were out of the hunt. Ramillies was much nearer to the Bismarck but she was escorting a convoy to Halifax. She left the convoy and we picked it up.
After the French had surrendered, the French fleet had to be prevented from falling into German hands. I forget whether we were in Pompey or Devonport, but the old battleship Paris was tied up astern of Revenge and the submarine Surcouf was tied up a longside her. In the early hours of one morning we went to action stations and sent boarding parties to take both ships. The sentries on the Paris were taken by surprise. The first man down the ladder on the Surcouf was leading seaman Webb. He was shot and killed by a French officer. The British officer following Webb then killed the Frenchman.
Revenge was one of the ships carrying Britain's gold reserves to Halifax from Greenock. Security was tight. The boxes contained either four gold bars or bags of coins. Guess how Jack found that out. The gold arrived in Greenock harbour in railway box wagons. Marines were the guards. One officer checked the boxes, which were numbered out of the wagon. An officer checked them going into a boat. An officer checked them going on board Revenge, another checked them being lowered to the bomb room and another checked them arriving in the bomb room. The procedure was reversed in Halifax. We also carried the Polish General Sikorski to Halifax. I have a photograph of him leaving from the quarterdeck in Halifax.
Dhobeying and bathing on the Revenge was in buckets or hand basins. Access to the bathrooms, which consisted of a row of hand basins, was down through watertight hatches which were only open for certain times of day. Sometimes the valves, whether through somebody's carelessness or not I don't know, allowed the sea into the bathrooms and flooded them. So you raised the hatch on chain blocks and what you saw was the Atlantic. So it was move on to the next bathroom. The flooded bathrooms were then pumped out.
Between A and B turrets there was a main hatch. This hatch was watertight when the sea was flat and the sun shining, rare events in the North Atlantic in winter. So a large canvas bath was rigged up under the hatch with pumps to pump it out. A consequence was that in bad weather there was always water swishing around on the deck. The foc'sle and top mess decks were on the same deck so sea boots were essential at all times.
Another of Revenge's idiosyncrasies was the lower decks' heads which were right for'ard. The lavatories were two steps up from the deck, in cubicles with half doors on so that it was possible to see if they were occupied. They were flushed by pushing a large brass button. Unfortunately sometimes the valve which allowed the contents of the pan to be sent out into the ocean failed and the Atlantic came in. We could tell by the water surrounding such rogues which to avoid. But if a valve had not previously failed there was no way of knowing. In that case the Atlantic came in and the Matelot who was sitting there got a right slap in the face, so to speak.
The mess decks were open messdecks, not the small compartmentalised messes of the modern ships such as the KGV class. When I became an OD I moved into the top messdeck. Revenge was general messing which meant that we peeled the spuds but apart from that everything was done in the galley. We carried all meals from the galley to the mess. Everybody took a turn at cook of the day which meant collecting the food, dishing it out and washing up after the meal. The washing up water and gash were carried on to the upper deck and sent down the gash chute. If a piece of cutlery had been left in the water it could be heard hitting the sides of the chute as it went down. That was where I learned the ditty; "Tinkle tinkle little spoon, knife and fork will follow soon". Leading Seaman Telford, a decent man in one of the foc'sle messes had a weakness for rum. The rum, two and one, was poured into cups. Telford was known for always scrutinising the cups to see which he thought had the most in. So one day his mess mates filled one cup with vinegar, and they all waited for Telford to arrive. His eyes flickered over the cups and then he bit. There was uproar, with everybody laughing their heads off and Telford fuming and threatening all sorts of mayhem. But he was a decent sort and nothing came of it. Tasters, sippers, gulpers and swipers were the rewards on birthdays or for favours rendered.
At some time in 1941 we escorted a troop convoy to the Indian ocean. Before we reached the Cape we were rammed by the troopship Orion. We had the usual ceremony for crossing the line. I have given copies of photographs to the museum. The sea hag was 'Guts Parritt'. That is the pronunciation, I am not sure of the spelling. Guts was a three badge AB, a roly poly man with a terrific sense of humour. On Christmas Day 1941 we were at sea and Guts came running round the messdecks wearing a children's cowboy outfit and waving a toy gun. I don't know the name of Neptune or his servants but they had a big parade round the upper deck and Neptune challenged the skipper for being on his territory then giving him permission to proceed. Everybody who had never crossed the line before had a good ducking.
I saw my first burial at sea when the sailmaker collapsed and died at sea. There was an amusing incident. The sailmaker was laid out on the boat deck with a white canvas sheet over him between the boats, which were on the same deck as the four inch guns. Sentries from the four inch were posted. During the night, and of course it was pitch black, a wind lifted the sheet. The unfortunate sentry took fright and ran to the four inch shouting that he had seen a ghost.
There were two fleet champion boxers on board. Bellamy who was a light heavy and Lord who was a fly weight. We were in three ramming incidents. Coming out of Halifax one evening we rammed the boom defence ship. One night at sea we were rammed by a tanker and as already mentioned the liner Orion during broad daylight. Captain Archer already had the nickname Rammer before these incidents so why he had that name I do not know.