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If we cannot secure our needs for survival on the basis of law and justice, then we must be ready to secure them with army in our hands.
-- Mihaly Karolyi
With a friend of mine, a Post Office messenger like myself, I had gone to the Royal Navy Recruiting Office when I was 16 year old to volunteer for the Navy. They took our names then and apologized for the fact that they were not allowed to take us as Boy Seamen at 16 years and that we would have to wait until we were called up at 18 years. They did tell us however if we volunteered just before 18 years the Navy would take us then.
What they didn't tell us was that they would write to our parents confirming this. When the letter arrived, my mother nearly raised the roof but my father took it very well, and in April 1943 I joined the Royal Navy aged 17 years 9 months.
My first 'ship' was HMS Royal Arthur better known as Butlins Camp at Skegness, for kitting out, basic training in seamanship, then selection for the particular branch you would be in. Mine turned out to be the Signals Branch and together with about 50 others I was sent by train to HMS Scotia on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland just outside Ayr. It was another Butlins Holiday Camp.
We lived in Nissen Huts, 20 double tiered bunk beds in each, with an iron Stove at either end to keep us warm at night. The huts were newly erected and had not had the end doors and windows put in. Although it was May we were still getting light snow showers and frost at night, so it was a bit on the cold side for about a week after we arrived.
The course of training was very intensive and included all forms of signaling, Morse sending and receiving by W/T (Wireless Telegraphy), lamp and flag, visual by semaphore (hand flags and mechanical), signal flag hoists on the mast. The Signal School had a 60 foot mast and we had to learn to climb it, practicing until it became second nature. Our instructors were Chief Yeomen or Yeomen of Signals and they quickly told us not to get too 'cocky' about being able to climb the mast as we were the ones who would replace the signal halyard ropes and the W/T aerials on board ship and they always seemed to break in the worst possible weather. The ship's mast would not keep still like the one at the Signal School. Every movement between each period of instruction was done at the 'double march'. Only instructors and officers were allowed to walk during instruction periods.
By the end of October it was the first exams and we were given our various postings. I was one of 6 in my class who were posted to Lowestoft, the Base for the Royal Navy Patrol Service. On arrival in Lowestoft we reported to the Drafting Master at Arms Office in the Base and were all given 14 days leave (Pre-Foreign Service) but we could not find out where we were going. The leave passed by very quickly and I was soon back in Lowestoft and billeted in an old house with some 20 other sailors awaiting draft
On the 11th December 1943 I was on a night train to Glasgow with my fellow Ordinary Signalman colleagues, all of us being just 18 years of age. The train took us through various other stations and we picked up a number of other coaches filled with Army and RAF personnel before finally reaching Glasgow in the early morning and being shunted right onto the Dockside, then transferred straight aboard a troopship which was named Leopoldville. This was the name of a town in the Belgian Congo in Africa, after which the ship had been named and it flew the Belgian flag
We left the dock as soon as all the forces had embarked and joined a large convoy which had formed up in a wide part of the Clyde Estuary off Greenock and Gourock, known as the 'Tail of the Bank'. As soon as it became dark on the 12th December we set sail from the Clyde, up around the north of Ireland and out into the Atlantic and into the teeth of a full gale. Not a single light could be seen. By morning practically everyone in our mess deck was seasick including me. None of us wanted food and couldn't care if we lived or died. Fortunately it soon passed and we were eating again, but confined below deck for two days until the weather moderated and no more heavy seas were breaking over the bows.
We were allowed on deck for practicing emergency boat drill with our cork life jackets on. The life jackets had to be kept close to hand as we were to have these practices regularly during the voyage, having to go to the Lifeboat Station we had been allocated whenever the alarm bell rang. If it was an 'exercise drill' it was announced over the tannoy loudspeakers, but more frequently it was not.
It was some 3 or 4 days after leaving Glasgow that the weather was clear enough for us to see the extent of the convoy. We comprised some 12 large ships, mostly liners or cargo & passenger ships, and we traveled at 18 - 20 knots, being known as a fast convoy. As U-boats were very active in the area we were to pass through, the faster the convoy the safer it was
The ships were spread over a great area of the sea and our escort consisted of a large number of destroyers and cruisers but they were never near enough for us to find out their names. The main ship of the convoy which had the Commodore on board was, I believe, named the 'Highland Monarch', a pre-war Royal Mail Liner on the Australia Run.
Quite frequently during the Boat Drills which were not exercises, we heard and felt the cushion of exploding depth charges dropped by the escorts. Changes of course were quickly made, but everyone was straining their eyes, gazing across the sea for any sign of a U-boat.
As the days passed by the sea became much bluer and calm and the weather beautiful and warm. We were told to enjoy it as we were then some 500 miles from the South American coast and would be heading back towards Gibraltar where it was much colder. We had in fact sailed a great half cycle which had taken us out of the range of the large German 4-engined Folke Wolfe bombers based in France
We arrived at Gibraltar in the dark, but everywhere was lit up. You couldn't have a blackout in Gibraltar when everything in Spain was alive with lights. It was an overnight stop. Some of the ships stayed at Gibraltar and others passed through into the Mediterranean, but together with 2 of the ships and a new escort we headed south down the coast of Africa. The escort which had brought us safely from England was to take a fast convoy back.
My colleagues and I had now found out from the Signals Officer on the troopship where we were going - it was Freetown in Sierra Leone - but we still did not know the ship or ships we were to join. All we did find out was the Dept. No. was EC1 which stood for the base ship 'Edinburgh Castle', an old liner which was moored in the large river estuary.
We arrived in Freetown Harbour just before Christmas 1943, and passed through the large antisubmarine net boom into the harbour estuary. The Navy, Army and Airforce for Freetown were quickly disembarked and the 'Leopoldville' turned round and rejoined the escort and the other ships waiting outside the boom and headed south.
Everything seemed to go like clockwork. We were transferred by harbour launch to the 'Edinburgh Castle', the Army contingent ferried ashore to the Depot of the British West African Frontier Force and the RAF lads by RAF launch further up the river to Waterloo, the Flyboat Station.
Conditions were 'spartan' to say the least. Our ships were due in 2 days hence and we were 'rookies' not having flashed a lamp or waved a signal flag in anger before. When we did, it had to be correct as our lives and everyone else's on board relied on it being so. We therefore practiced hard those two days, passing signals by semaphore, Morse lamp and flag hoists, to and fro, with the Signal Station some 13 miles away, sending the signals through binoculars and telescopes. We also attempted to get conversant with the local signal orders in force at Freetown, so we should understand what was required when the Base Ship hoisted flag signals advising all ships.
Our Base Ship which dealt with all the paper work, provisions, staffing etc was a large merchant ship, the 'Philoctetes II', named after a Greek God, and which was fully equipped as a Engineering Works Ship capable of carrying out all repairs - short of building a new ship.
On Christmas Eve the ships we were to join came in and moored alongside the base ship. They were Asdic Trawlers (SONAR) about 170 feet long and were the deep sea fishing sort of trawlers fitted with depth charge rails at the stern and 2 depth charge throwers on the port and starboard sides. Guns were fitted on platforms either side of the bridge and over the after deck. A 12 powder gun was mounted on the forecastle head. They were also equipped with Radar and Echo-sounding gear. A full crew was 50 persons including the officers.
The trawlers were of the Hill Class being named after hills in England , namely 'Butser', 'Birdlip', 'Duncton', 'Dunkery', 'Inkpen', 'Portsdown', 'Yestor' and 'Bredon'. They were built at Cook, Welton and Gemmell's Shipyard at Beverley in 1941. HMS Butser was the ship I joined and had in fact been launched on the 29th July 1941. She proved to be a lucky ship for me as the 29th July was my birthday. Of the eight ships in the class, the 'Bredon' had sunk in February 1943 when on escort in the South Atlantic, so only 7 remained.
We were soon aboard our respective ships, relieving the signalmen who were to return home and after taking stores on board we moved out to the mooring bays to load coal and water for the next trip. Water was the last to be taken, and once we left harbour none could be used for washing purposes. It was salt water showers or nothing until we returned.
Our job was to escort slow cargo boats (about 9 knots) to the various harbours along the West African Coast, places like Dakar, Takoradi, Lagos, Monrovia, Pointe Noire. On occasions we would screen a cargo ship off a surf port. This was where there was no harbour. The ship would anchor a safe distance from the surf breaking on the beach and near to where a large jetty or pier reached out into deep water. A small tugboat would be then dropped into the water by a crane followed by barges. These were then towed out to the ship and cargo was loaded and unloaded this way. This was a very tedious job as we had to mount an anti-sub sweep by Asdic and it meant a week or more sailing up and down offshore manning a watch throughout the 24 hours.
Usually we took small convoys of about 9 main ships which were dropped off at the ports where we picked up others which had already loaded. Quite a busy traffic, the loaded ships being taken south and handed over to an escort from Gibraltar for the eventual trip to England. Our escort was usually comprised of a large frigate, 2 sloops, 2 corvettes and 3 trawlers. The 3 faster ships were to the front of the convoy, the corvettes either side and the trawlers to the rear, all keeping an underwater Asdic sweep for any U-boats.
There were also Sunderland Flying Boats from Freetown, Hercules arising from Takoradi and Cameron Catalanians from Ascension Island which over flew the area we were in, hunting for signs of U-boats. The U-boats were not as active in our area in 1944 as previously as most of them were in the South Atlantic plaguing one of the large convoys from America and a great number were being sunk by the new hunter-killer groups which had been formed to destroy them. The RAF were also having their uses in France which cut their numbers down. We did however still have a few long range boats which had been in the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic and which headed back for home, coming our way. The war in the Far East was also going better in our favour, so the threat of Japanese submarines coming our way gradually faded.
It was not over though for in July 1944 the 'Birdlip' was hit by torpedo when at the rear of a convoy. It left just 6 ships out of the 8 launched at Beverley. The signalmen who died were at the Training School with me and were the same age as I was, 19 years, and it was a sad time to lose them and their shipmates.
Note: by Eric Mason, Signalman, AS Trawlers HMS Buster and HMS Bay
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