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HMS Eskimo 1942 - 1945
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This is the down to earth story of John Manners a First Lieutenant who served on Eskimo through many of the key actions of the war, including Pedestal, the Russian Convoys, Torch and Husky. It is told with few flourishes and is all the better for the realistic portrayal of war on a destroyer. I recommend you read it. He is still alive and well at the age of 95 in 2009.
Lt. Cdr John Manners, D.S.C.
In 1938-9 I was serving as a watch-keeping officer in the Birmingham on the China Station based at Hong Kong.
By late summer 1939 things were beginning to hot up and it looked as if there would be war and we were sent down to Singapore to await events. The naval base at Singapore was a dreary place with few facilities on the north side of Singapore Island and fifteen miles from any civilisation. To break the monotony by having an evening in town, four of us would hire a taxi and keep it the whole evening so we could get back to the base. With war imminent, we put to sea and patrolled around the Sunda Straits between Java and Sumatra. It was known that a pocket battleship was at large as well as a number of raiders, which might come our way.
On the first day of the war our Walrus reconnaissance plane was catapulted off and came across a sizeable German cargo ship, 'S S Franken'. Birmingham was too far away to intercept and the best the Walrus could do was to drop some smoke bombs ahead of the ship just to give it a fright! It hurriedly escaped into Padang in Sumatra. Later we went back to Hong Kong and did a patrol towards Japan sighting Mount Fujiyama but keeping out of territorial waters.
Father and sons - John, Errol, Rodney and Sherard
Early in December I was relieved in order to take up an appointment in England. I travelled back in the 'Falmouth' as far as Bombay where she remained. Thence I transferred to the liner 'Strathallan' for the trip home arriving early in January 1940 and docking at Southampton.
At the time my father was at sea as a Commodore of Convoys, my elder brother Rodney was at sea in the 'Sheffield' and my younger brother Sherard was also at sea.
For the next five weeks I was on leave. It was a bitterly cold winter and there was little to do with wartime austerity. At last I received a new appointment to join the 'Eglinton', which was one of the new Hunt class of destroyers being built at Newcastle.
HMS Eglinton Rate this photo
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After a months leave I was sent on a round of courses lasting a week each in gunnery, torpedo and anti-gas following which I was appointed as first lieutenant to Eglinton, one of the new class of small general purpose anti aircraft destroyers being built at the Walker Yard on the Tyne at Newcastle. Here there was a hive of activity with the building of the battleship King George V, the aircraft carrier Victorious, the cruiser Swiftsure and several other minor craft.
The Hunt class destroyers were built with three twin turrets of 4" anti-aircraft guns, a quadruple pom pom and Lewis guns either side of the bridge. The first of the class to be built was the Athestone and Commander Hugh Browning, her newly appointed captain, took one look at her and said she was top heavy. Inclining tests were carried out and he was proved quite correct. This entailed removal of one pair of guns, so there went one-third of our armament! It was unbelievable that the naval constructors could make such a gross mistake.
By this time Eglinton was well advanced and for my first fortnight they were dismantling the third gun mounting. The anti-aircraft equipment was quite inadequate to cope with modem aircraft tactics. Pre-war gunnery practice had been against either Swordfish or Walrus planes towing a target drogue at less than a hundred miles an hour.
The anti- aircraft control equipment was quite incapable of forecasting where to aim the guns and I doubt if any enemy aircraft were ever shot down by it. It could only deal with one aircraft at a time and was useless against dive-bombers. It was soon discovered that there was no substitute for air cover, lessons that were learnt off Norway, Crete and anywhere enemy aircraft operated.
The multiple four-barrelled pom pom was fitted and ships could not fire directly ahead or astern because the funnel and masts were in the way. It had a range of one mile but was not very easy to train round if the ship was manoeuvring. The Lewis guns on either side of the bridge were completely ineffective against aircraft. Enemy planes were getting much faster and usually attacked in groups, not to mention the newly developed dive-bombing of Stukas, and our armament was not equipped to deal with them. The best armament was the Bofors gun either in single form or a multiple mounting but this did not become generally available till the Pacific war.
A short time after my arrival the Dunkirk operation took place and many of the officers at Newcastle were withdrawn to take part in this operation. I did not go as the Eglinton was nearing completion, but when they returned they had horror stories to tell. One officer was so shaken that he lay on the office table saying, "God I was frightened."
During my time in Newcastle I met and became engaged to Mary Downes, who was an actress in the Newcastle Repertory Company, which was one of the best in the country
Later in the summer the Eglinton was commissioned and we sailed to Scapa Flow to shake down and exercise all our weapons. By this time we had been de-gaussed, which entailed wires being wound the ship to neutralise its magnetism and make it immune from magnetic mines. Every time we went to sea it was switched on and from time to time we were tested over the de-gaussing range to ensure all was well. By this time we had taken on our ammunition consisting of semi-armour piercing shells, anti-aircraft and star shell. At Scapa Flow shore defences guarded the fleet so that our armament did not have to be manned as we swung around our buoy in Gutter Sound.
After a few weeks of working up and getting efficiency up to scratch we sailed south to join the Harwich escort force and really start our war. Our objective was to protect the convoys mainly against E-boats operating at night from the Dutch port of Ijmuiden. Every evening four of the ships put to sea, two would take up position on the seaward side to reinforce the northbound convoy that had left Southend in the morning and the two would do a similar job with that coming south. At some stage the convoys would pass each other.
There were occasional brushes with E-boats, star shells would be fired, but they were elusive targets and turned away as soon as they were located. They had the occasional success and on one occasion sunk our sister ship the Exmoor.
Once we sighted a strange ship to seaward, which we challenged and receiving no reply opened fire without main armament. We watched as four tracer shells passed just over the target, which turned out to be one of the destroyers from Sheerness. Lucky we missed. On another occasion we escorted the southbound convoy to the Thames estuary and an aerial dogfight took place overhead resulting in an enemy bomber being shot down and the crew parachuting into the sea. This was the first bomber to be destroyed by the newly fitted cannons in our fighter aircraft
Every two months we had the much looked-forward to 'boiler clean', when the ship was out of action for five days and the crew enjoyed a short holiday. We knew roughly the approximate date in advance and I arranged to get married by special license at the Church in St John's Wood, London. The date was fixed but in the event 'the boiler clean' was advanced a day reducing the honeymoon to one day. At the church to my surprise was my Father. He had arrived with his convoy at Liverpool the day before and had dashed down to be at the wedding.
Married to Mary
We booked into the Hyde Park Hotel and were having supper by the window of the restaurant on the ground floor. During the meal there was a thud followed by a minor earthquake tremor and we were moved to the other side of the restaurant. Sometime later we saw the bomb that caused the upheaval being exhibited as the second largest to be recovered unexploded. We would have been in its crater if it had gone off.
The convoys we guarded were usually made up of between twenty and forty ships steaming at eight knots in two columns, which stretched two or more miles long. One or two merchant ships flew barrage balloons to deter any low flying aircraft, but we were very rarely attacked. However, one evening a bomber approached us from ahead firing its machine guns. I was on the four-barreled pom pom, which was my action station, and was standing by the gunlayer whose duty it was to fire the gun. We were unable to fire at once and had to wait till the plane appeared over the mast and funnel. When the moment came to fire there was no gunlayer. I stepped in and opened fire myself a bit on the late side. Looking around I saw the gunlayer standing on the deck and I shouted at him angrily "You can't do that" he merely looked sheepish. The captain was naturally furious and when he heard the full story he court-martialled the absent gunlayer for cowardice in action. Our sub-lieutenant RNVR was a barrister and defended the culprit. He said he was taking shelter till the plane got closer, which was rubbish, but as it was his word against mine he got away with it but was removed from the ship pretty sharply!
An ever present hazard was the magnetic mine. The Germans introduced it early in the war and fairly soon counter measures were taken to combat it. Firstly all naval ships were de-gaussed to neutralise their magnetism and then pairs of trawlers distanced about half a mile apart, trailed long lines astern through which were passed electric pulses which detonated the mines. The convoy channel along east coast was continually swept in this manner. The mines were invariably laid by aircraft rather haphazardly so few fell in the convoy routes. However, there were occasional casualties and we picked up survivors from time to time. Our own minelayers had laid a sizeable barrier in the North Sea and these mines occasionally broke loose and floated to the surface. When we saw one of these we stopped about a hundred yards away, the gunners mate produced about a dozen 0.303 rifles which were grabbed by all and sundry who shot at the mine. A lucky shot on one of the horns of the mine would detonate it whilst others would puncture it and it would sink. A good time was had by all.
When the war started radar was a new invention and only two ships were fitted with it namely the Nelson and Sheffield. After about a year we were fitted with radar. The aerial looked like a big H or bedstead on its side at the top of the mast. It was a fixed structure giving variable results and confused by back echoes. It entailed making room for the operators cabinet and adding a few more personnel to an already overcrowded vessel. Rapid strides were made in the performance of radar and we soon were fitted with smaller revolving aerials which produced worthwhile results.
Another development was the arrival of the 'headache' operators. Just before putting to sea one of these mysterious men would creep aboard and listen out on the radio for transmissions for E-boats thus giving an indication if they were at sea.
In February 1942 the Scharnhorst, Gneisnau and Prince Eugen were at Brest and it was thought they would try and make the passage up the Channel. For some reason the air reconnaissance aircraft did not detect their movements but by chance a Spitfire returning from France did and reported it when he landed. By this time they were halfway up the Channel. There was a choppy sea and cloudy sky. The first attack on the very heavily escorted squadron by destroyers and aircraft was by motor torpedo boats opposite Dover. Next was the attack by naval Swordfish aircraft. The RAF fighter escort could not find them so they went in unescorted and all were shot down. By pure coincidence the Harwich force of six V & W destroyers, which had torpedoes, happened to be at sea doing exercises and were just in time to attack the squadron but did no damage. We were rushed out to sea to give covering fire. The sky was buzzing with aircraft, which darted in and out of the clouds. There always appeared to be enemy planes and there seemed to be none of ours. We were livid with the absence of our aircraft.
Around this time my wife gave birth to a daughter and arrangements were made to christen her on board. On arrival in the ship the burly coxswain seized the baby from my wife's arms insisting it was his privilege to carry it! The ships bell was turned upside down, filled with water, and used as a font and the ceremony went off like clockwork.
Soon after this I was relieved of my job and went off to pastures new.
My next appointment was to the Fame, an F class destroyer being refitted at Chatham dockyard having recently run aground, In company with the Ashanti she was going to the Tyne to escort the newly built battleship King George V up to Scapa Flow. Around the river Tyne in low visibility the pair turned at the wrong buoy five miles early and both ran aground at twenty knots. They were salvaged but needed repairing fairly extensively.
After a few weeks I suddenly received another appointment to H M S Eskimo, which was refitting at Silley Cox yard at Falmouth. On passage to Falmouth in rough weather her first lieutenant had been washed overboard and drowned hence my hurried appointment.
HMS Eskimo Rate this photo
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The Eskimo was one of sixteen tribal class destroyers built just before the war and they were the most powerful and prestigious of their kind with a top speed of thirty-five knots. They were fitted with four mountings with twin barrelled 4.7" calibre guns, a set of four torpedo tubes and a quadruple pom pom, a pair of quadruple 0.5 machine guns mounted on sponsors fitted amidships. In addition they had depth charges asdic and recently some new and improved radar with a total crew of just over two hundred. Their 4.7 guns had an elevation of only forty degrees and had proved useless against aircraft. Fairly early in the war the third mounting (X gun) was replaced by a high angle twin four-inch mounting. Although this was a slight improvement, the fire control arrangements for it were so inadequate that it was more of a morale booster than a success. It also meant that another different set of shells were needed.
Earlier in the war the Eskimo took part in the second battle of Narvik where she was torpedoed and lost a third of the ship when the bow section and forward gun mountings broke off. The refit at Falmouth lasted over six weeks on completion of which we went up to Scapa Flow and carried out non-stop exercises in gunnery, torpedo and anti-submarine work as well as getting acquainted with much improved radar equipment.
When not doing this we escorted the battleships exercising in the Pentland Forth.
By the middle of July things were stirring and the next operation turned out to be a large heavily escorted convoy to Malta. It was planned for August and it was the biggest and most important of the war called Pedestal. It consisted of fourteen merchant ships of around 10,000 tons each capable of a speed of 14 knots - such a collection could not be assembled again. They all had a mixed cargo with the exception of the Ohio, which was the most important of all with its cargo of fuel. This lot was escorted by two battleships, the Nelson and Rodney, plus seven cruisers and 24 destroyers, 2 fleet oilers, 2 torpedoes, 4 minesweepers, 7 motor launches and 8 submarines and 3 aircraft carriers, the Indomitable, Victorious and Eagle accompanied by the Furious which was flying off 38 Spitfires to reinforce Malta.
The operation commander was Admiral Sir Neville Syfret flying his flag in the Nelson at Scapa Flow so there was a good deal of excitement and we knew there was something big in the offing. As always we were topped up with fuel and food and were ready for action.
Early in August we went round to the Clyde and picked up the convoy and learnt that the destination was Malta, which was 3,000 miles away. It was thought that Malta could hold out till September so the next Russian convoy was postponed, much to Stalin's displeasure, as there were hardly any escorts left at Scapa Flow.
Victorious carrying Hurricanes, with Indomitable and Eagle, and 3 Dido cruisers, Phoebe, Sirius and Charybdis Rate this photo
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At sea the convoy formed up with fourteen merchant ships in four columns. Ahead of them were three anti aircraft cruisers, the Charybdis, Phoebe and Sirius. They were armed with five twin anti-aircraft guns that were capable of a high elevation but whose ability to shoot at fast flying enemy planes was completely outdated. Behind the merchant ships were the battleships and carriers as well as the minor units. This fleet was ringed by fourteen large fleet destroyers stationed about a mile apart who zig-zagged continually, the sequence of zig-zag being taken from a table. The convoy was routed out well into the Atlantic largely to avoid being located by long range Fokker Wolf Condor aircraft.
The passage to Gibraltar took about five days during which time the convoy was manoeuvred and practised emergency turns and forming into two columns from four, which was a requirement for the passage just before Malta. For this part of the trip we were at 'cruising stations.' This entailed one third of the personnel being closed up at their actions stations throughout which meant the anti-aircraft defenses were manned with skeleton crews plus the anti submarine Asdic was kept working and also the radar. By this time of the war radar was much improved in performance. On the trip apart from exercising the manoeuvring by day and night, gunnery firings were carried out doing barrages etc.
On the night of 10 August the convoy passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in slight fog and the destroyers put into Gibraltar in succession to fuel. This left gaps in the screen which had to be closed and which entailed continuous signalling and manoeuvrings. With Algeciras only five miles across the bay in Spain it was almost certain that the Germans knew about the convoy, indeed it was thought that there had been security leaks already.
Bearing in mind we had been at cruising stations for a week, which meant being continuously on daily four hours on and eight hours off, personnel were somewhat weary before there was any action, In addition to being on watch there were the normal household duties to keep the ship decently habitable as well as catching up on sleep and feeding. Nobody took their cloths off apart from boots, whilst sleeping. Around ones chest was tied the inflatable lifebelt which would be kept partially inflated, or not, according to taste. The facts of the convoy's progress are taken from the official reports as most of the time one did not know what the hell was going on.
So on 10 August we sailed into a lovely warm cloudless Mediterranean Sea seemingly without a care in the world. There was the threat of three German U-boats and a dozen Italian submarines laying in wait, but we were a bit far away to receive the attention of the Luftwaffe from Sicily. The day passed quietly but tension was increasing as we came within range of the enemy bombers not to mention any action taken by the Italian navy. On this calm sunny morning came the dreadful news that the Eagle had been torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat as we later found out. She was the oldest and smallest of the carriers but provided a quarter of the fleet's air power. At the time we were six hundred miles from Malta.
By this time we were at defence stations, which meant that half the ship's company were at their action stations all the time working four hours closed up and four hours off duty. However, when the frequent air attacks came we went to action stations with every single man allocated a particular duty. I was first lieutenant and therefore second in command and it was the practice to be away from the bridge in case it was hit and all key personnel were put out of action. My action station was on the four-barrelled pom pom. Being away from the bridge meant that I was not completely aware of what was going on though a running commentary was passed by telephone. At action stations everyone donned their tin hats and anti-flash gear consisting of a balaclava head covering and anti-flash gloves. Soon the 'Furious' flew off her 38 Spitfires, which went straight to Malta. She then returned to Gibraltar under escort, one of which HMS Wolverine, rammed and sank an Italian submarine.
By this time of the war huge advances had been made in radar, which was fitted to all ships. Its use in the aircraft carriers had enabled designated officers called Fighter Direction Officers to develop a highly skilled expertise in directing our aircraft to intercept the enemy. The limited number of aircraft in the carriers consisted of Hurricanes and Martlets to deal with higher-flying planes and Fulmars against those flying lower. A complication was the fact that the carriers had to steam into the wind to fly off and land their aircraft with the result they had to manoeuvre steering at times a different course to the convoy.
On 11 August tension was building up. There were various alarms of the presence of enemy aircraft, but they were only shadowers but served to keep our fingers on the triggers. Coupled to this there were frequent alarms from submarine echoes on the Asdic sets and the occasional sighting of torpedoes, none of which scored any hits. The whole convoy did numerous emergency turns, normally of 45 degrees to avoid these submarines and as the destroyer screen was zigzagging all the time, manoeuvring was not easy.
At last in the evening the radar detected a large enemy attack impending. Our aircraft were flown off and no doubt unsettled the attacking force which consisted of 36 planes a mix of JU88 high level bombers and Henkel 111 torpedo bombers, the latter flying in low and releasing their torpedoes rather far away. All ships opened fire with every gun and the sky was filled with short bursts and a number of the enemy were shot down but more importantly, the convoy suffered no damage.
So dawned 12 August. The whole time there were shadowing aircraft reporting the progress of the convoy whose whereabouts was even broadcast on Italian radio. Meanwhile during the night light bombers from Malta had attacked Sicilian airfields, which must have had a deterrent effect on the enemy. Our fighter aircraft were flown off in early dawn and soon attacked a flight of 24 Junkers 88 high level bombers escorted by fighters. Several of the enemy were shot down, others jettisoned their bombs and only about half dropped their load somewhat inaccurately and no damage was done - sighs of relief! Those that did approach were fired at with every gun in the fleet.
By now we were getting close to the enemy airfields and around midday all hell broke loose. Firstly some black canisters were dropped by parachutes ahead of the convoy by ten Italian aircraft. These were 'motobombs' a newly invented but untried weapon that was in effect a circling torpedo. Yet another emergency turn was made, this time at 90 degrees and there were no casualties. The whole day was spent at action stations with everybody getting increasingly weary. Coupled to the fact that the galley fires were drawn, feeding arrangements were either chaotic or non-existent. The conditions were hot, calm and cloudless. If we were tired, what about the poor pilots, who were worked to a standstill with one emergency after another.
Eskimo was always on the starboard port of the screen on the French North African side, whereas most of the attacks came from the port side, which was nearest to the enemy airfields. During the morning a large number of Italian torpedo bombers said to be 42 Savoias kept circling the convoy at low altitude not daring to risk flying through the outer destroyer screen. They could easily have swamped our defences but declined to do so. After seemingly hours of trying they dropped their torpedoes out of range and departed for home.
At the same time there were various submarine contacts on the Asdic followed by the dropping of depth charges. With torpedo bombers circling, high level bombers, dive bombers, parachute bombs, emergency turns, 2 aircraft carriers careering about either flying off and landing aircraft the scene was one of organised confusion, not to mention the presence of the occasional enemy submarines.
Then around midday 20 Junkers and 87 dive-bombers made their attacks. The sky seemed filled with planes as we were now within range of the long-range enemy fighters. Our own fighters were there to hurry the JU87s, which were comparatively slow moving and had probably never met any opposition since the early days of the Battle of Britain. However their number was too great for our forces to cope with, but they no doubt helped to put them off their stroke; in any case nine were shot down by aircraft and another 2 by ship fire. A few ships had near misses in particular the Deucalion whose speed was reduced and she dropped behind the convoy where she was repeatedly attacked and eventually sunk by torpedoes from Italian Savoias. By this time we were within 300 miles of Malta.
In the afternoon there were numerous alarms and the Ithuriel rammed and sank the Italian submarine Cobalto. The whole time there were radar reports which mostly turned out to be shadowing planes. In spite of the tiredness due to lack of sleep and being continually at action stations, spirits were rising as only one of the merchant ships had been lost.
Sirius coming to the aid of Indomitable Rate this photo
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In the evening 13 Savoia torpedo bombers attacked in a half-hearted way and were deterred by a fierce barrage of fire but one torpedo hit the stern of the destroyer Foresight rendering her immobile and she had to be sunk. By about 1800 the sky became thick with aircraft obviously waiting for a co-ordinated attack. There were 42 bombers, mostly JU87 dive-bombers, 40 Savoias and 38 fighters according to one report totalling one hundred and twenty planes. At any rate there were a hell of a lot and these were harried by the carriers' 22 fighters whose pilots must have been exhausted by this time. Then the enemy attacked and there were planes everywhere and all ships were firing every gun and in the middle of it all it was evident that the aircraft carriers were the main target. Suddenly huge plumes of smoke appeared in the bows and stern of the Indomitable as the Stukas dived down on her and hit her with 2 or 3 bombs. She turned towards us escorted by the anti aircraft cruiser Scylla and as she got close we could see a huge piece of her side plating hanging loose and a plume of black smoke rising near her stern, but she was not put out of action completely. Things became strangely quiet as the enemy planes departed having lost around ten per cent of their number in the last two days plus a lot that must have been damaged.
Indomitable listing to port Rate this photo
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The time was 1900 and dusk was approaching and Admiral Syfret decided to retire back to Gibraltar with the two battleships, carriers, 3 anti-aircraft cruisers and eleven destroyers. This move was always planned but as the result of the Indomitable's damage, it took place a quarter of an hour earlier than planned. Rear Admiral Burrough in the Nigeria now took command of proceedings by which time we were 250 miles from Malta which should have been 16 hours steaming with a time of arrival on the next afternoon. Ahead was the Skerki Bank, which may have been mined, and it was planned to take the convoy through the comparatively narrow channel to the south, then around Cape Bon keeping fairly near the North African coast and thence on to Malta. For this passage the convoy of merchantmen was to form up into two columns instead of four, a manoeuvre that had to be carried out in the dark, and when completed the column of the 13 remaining ships were strung out and straggling for several miles. This made the job of escorts very difficult.
One column was led by the Nigeria with Rear Admiral Burrough and the other headed by the Cairo. Dusk was just beginning when suddenly the Nigeria was torpedoed followed almost immediately by the Cairo and a few minutes later another torpedo struck the Ohio. This was the work of one Italian submarine and her salvo of six torpedoes must have been either the most skilful or luckiest of the whole war.
The Cairo sunk but the Nigeria remained afloat and was able to limp back to Gibraltar. Unluckily these two cruisers were the only ones fitted for fighter directing when the convoy reached the advance guard of fighter aircraft from Malta. Ohio was stopped but stayed afloat and was later able to proceed at slow speed. These three ships were the most vital in the convoy. Moreover, the Nigeria carried Rear Admiral Burrough who had taken charge of the convoy and he had to transfer to the destroyer Ashanti.
With the advent of dusk enemy torpedo bombers arrived and with the merchant ships silhouetted against the evening sky hits were registered on the Empire Hope which sank. The next was the Clan Ferguson which blew up with no survivors and hits were registered on the Brisbane Star and Santa Eliza but both were able to carry on at reduced speed.
The convoy in the space of about half an hour had suffered crippling losses. There was absolute mayhem. With enemy submarines in the vicinity, torpedo bombers attacking, ships blowing up and everybody firing their guns for all they were worth, the situation was completely out of control. There were now ten destroyers left with the convoy plus the Kenya and Manchester and the depressing news came through that the Italian Fleet was at sea. Some ships fired star shell which temporarily illuminated some attacking E-boats and ships opened fire whenever they could.
With all the escorts twisting and turning causing the destroyers to heel over, no hits were scored on them. Soon afterwards Kenya was hit in the bow by a torpedo from an Italian submarine but fortunately she was able to continue at reduced speed and return to Gibraltar.
Early on the morning of 13 August the convoy ran into a number of Italian and German E-boats. This happened in a narrow channel by Cape Bon where there was not much room to manoeuvre and the Manchester was hit and brought to a standstill with both boiler rooms flooded. We passed her in the Eskimo and soon afterwards the Ohio who was proceeding very slowly.
Further attacks were carried out by E-boats who damaged the Rochester Castle, sunk the Glenorchy and Wairangi and the Almeria Lykes was abandoned. So by dawn the convoy was in a very sorry state with only five merchant ships in the convoy, but a sigh of relief went up when a fighter from Malta hoved into view.
Just as we felt a bit safer we were ordered back with Somali to pick up survivors. To pick up survivors we let down our scrambling nets, which had a mesh rather like a rope ladder. We had two of these on each side. They were about fifteen feet long and reached down to the water. We picked up all we could find from the Wairangi, Almeria Lykes and Manchester, which had been abandoned and sunk. It was a lovely calm sunny day and we were able to pick up some 200 survivors including a Carley raft full of Manchester survivors including A B Coates who had been in my division in Birmingham in China three years previously.
Most of the Manchester survivors had managed to reach the shore and we could see them there. They were being rounded up by the French and did not receive very good treatment. This bitterness was understandable following the sinking of their ships in Oran and the disastrous Dakar failure.
With Somali we then proceeded back to Gibraltar at a fair speed. We felt very naked under the clear blue sky but of course the enemy aircraft were directing their attention to the remaining merchant ships approaching Malta. Suddenly one aircraft did appear taking us by surprise and it dropped several bombs directly ahead of Somali who came to an abrupt stop. These bombs were anti submarine bombs which exploded under the water. However, she got soon under way.
Another incident occurred when I happened to be on the upper deck and suddenly saw two torpedoes washed up in our wake about 100 yards astern.
At end of convoy
We duly arrived back in Gibraltar and before we had time to mop our brows we were ordered back into the Med to escort the Furious carrying another load of Spitfires to Malta. We steamed at about 25 knots for a day and when within 300 miles of Malta the planes were flown off, one unlucky one must have had engine failure as it fell into the sea over the bows and vanished without trace.
To complete the story the remaining ships sailed towards Malta harassed by enemy dive bombers and Waimarama and Dorset were sunk and three staggered into Malta all of them having sustained some damage Later the very important oil tanker Ohio struggled into harbour after an epic trip and then the Brisbane Star limped in at slow speed having dropped behind and not having attracted the further attention of the enemy.
A cause of surprise is what happened to the Italian surface ships. Six Italian cruisers had put to sea accompanied by a dozen destroyers. Two of the cruisers were hit and damaged by one of our submarines just north of Sicily in addition to which the Germans would not give them air cover, as they needed their fighters to protect their dive-bombers. It was a mystery why the Italians could not provide their ships with their own fighters. They were afraid of attacks by Malta based Beaufighters coupled with a lack of resolve they did not make their appearance, which was just as well because they could have annihilated the convoy. Another deterrent was a patrol line of our submarines just north of the convoy route.
The final result was that the few ships that arrived at Malta, in particular the oil tanker Ohio, kept the island in aviation fuel, ammunition and food until the next phase of the war.
Russian Convoy PQ 18 and QP 14
Eskimo arrived back at Scapa Flow at the end of August and we secured to a buoy in Gutter Sound along with the other fleet destroyers. We did a bit of exercising of our armaments though goodness knows we did not need much after the Malta convoy. Mostly our time was spent escorting bigger units exercising outside Scapa Flow which had its limitation due to its size. We therefore spent a lot of time in Pentland Firth with the boring job of guarding the big ships. The weather in the Firth is notoriously fickle and conditions were frequently uncomfortable. We would arrive back at our buoy in the evening and receive our sailing instructions for the morrow which usually meant sailing at 0600. The grind was very tedious and never ending. There was no chance of recreation. The sailors had a canteen on Flotta where they could get beer. One sailor, not one of ours, from one of the battleships had an altercation with a sheep and whenever a boatload of semi drunken sailors passed the ship they broke into a chorus of 'baas' to the annoyance of the former. In the many weeks we spent at Scapa I recollect going ashore once for a walk purely for exercise.
At the end of September it became apparent that something big was in the offing. As was normal we were always fully stocked up with food and fuel and learnt that our next venture was to escort a Russian Convoy.
A few days before this Sir Winston Churchill visited Scapa and we all assembled in the depot ship Tyne to hear him give a pep talk, though he never mentioned a convoy to Russia!
We sailed from Iceland with the other fleet destroyers and anchored temporarily at Akerureyi which was a fiord in the north of the island. On about September 7 we sailed and joined the convoy PQ 18. This consisted of 40 ships, a large proportion being American, combined with a miscellaneous lot of other nationalities. These were formed in ten columns with four ships in each column, two cables (400yds apart). The frontage of this armada was about ten miles plus another two or three when the ring of escorts was taken to account.
These merchant ships had sailed from Lock Ewe and encountered very heavy weather and were rather a disorganised inexperienced rabble. They were exercised at manoeuvring with emergency turns etc and a modicum of order was achieved and the whole outfit steamed along at the modest speed of eight knots. Their escort was formidable. The whole was commanded by Rear Admiral Robert Burnett, known throughout the navy as 'Bullshit Bob', flying his flag on Scylla, which was an anti-aircraft carrier equipped with ten high angle guns.
There were also two specially equipped anti-aircraft ships, 2 oilers, 4 minesweepers and some tankers, 1 rescue ship and 2 submarines tucked in at the back of the convoy. Most important of all was the presence of the Avenger an American built 'Woolworth' aircraft carrier with three Swordfish anti-submarine planes and twelve Sea Hurricanes. This armada was ringed by a screen of twenty-five destroyers stationed about a mile apart.
The enemy was expecting the convoy and had lined up a formidable opposition of twelve submarines and well over a hundred aircraft, bombers, torpedo bombers and shadowers. The destroyers zig-zagged all the time in accordance with a table. They frequently broke off to investigate Asdic contacts of enemy submarines leaving gaps in the screen which had to be filled so that they were being manoeuvred all the time and were continually topping up with fuel sometimes from the two oilers with the convoy or in a bay at Spitzbergen where there was another oiler.
The convoy kept up as far north as possible passing just south of Spitzbergen and skirting the ice barrier, some small icebergs being sometimes mistaken for the conning towers of U-boats and attacked. This course took us over 400 hundred miles from the German air bases in northern Norway which was just within their range not to mention the distance German surface ships would have to travel. Being so far north there was little darkness but just a few hours of twilight.
September 8 the convoy was located by a long range Fokker Wolf Condor. The plans of the whole operation were known to the Germans because a Hampden bomber had to force land in Norway and the plans had been captured, besides which they were able to decipher all naval messages sent in code. There was low cloud and poor visibility and the enemy lost contact with the convoy for four days but as our speed was eight knots, they could easily work out our approximate position.
On the 12th shadowing aircraft located the convoy. They mostly consisted of Blohm and Voss or Dornier flying boats which could be seen circling the convoy appearing between the clouds but out of gunfire range. The Avenger sent up her Hurricanes to attack them but their armament of machine guns was inadequate to shoot any of them down. The awful fact was that a number of more modern Hurricanes fitted with cannon were being carried in the merchant ships. The Hurricanes were in future not used for attacking these shadowing aircraft which became part of the daily scene. In any case they were not a danger as an attacking force.
By now there were a number of enemy submarines in contact with the convoy. Although Avenger had only three anti-submarine Swordfish planes, they were able to harass the enemy forcing them to dive and occasionally dropping depth charges on them. Various Asdic contacts were made and depth charges dropped which entailed the destroyers concerned leaving a gap in the protecting screen, which had to be closed.
However, they did claim two merchant ships for the loss of one submarine. Then came September 13 when the Luftwaffe really went into action. There were continuous alarms starting with what we now know as diversionary attack by a number of high-level bombers. With misty conditions and a large amount of low cloud they had no success. Later at a crucial moment there were no Hurricanes airborne. With so few planes it was impossible to give air cover all the time.
Suddenly there was one of the most horrifying sights of the war. Along the whole horizon were aircraft flying just above the waves wing tip to wing tip and below radar cover. This was the German 'Golden Comb' attack in which all the planes released two torpedoes each at the same time. Records show there were forty-two Heinkel torpedo bombers and a number of Junkers 88's. Everything was happening - as soon as they were seen the commodore of the convoy ordered an emergency turn away in order to comb the tracks of the torpedoes but unfortunately the two starboard columns did not comply. Like all the others Eskimo put the helm hard over and increased speed, which made the ship list and heel over. These frantic manoeuvres made it impossible for any accurate gunfire. However, every ship blasted off with everything and the air was thick with bullets. The Eskimo was in the starboard column of the screen and this menacing swarm passed a few feet overhead and as the aircraft were travelling at about 250 miles an hour they were gone before you could say 'Jack Robinson'. We were not their prime target and shortly after passing us they released no less than a 110 torpedoes.
In no time eight ships were hit, some sank at once and in one case, there was a gigantic explosion sending a column of black smoke vertically upwards and the ship vanished completely. The barrage that was fired at the attackers was terrific, but according to German records only five planes were shot down though many more must have been damaged.
The situation was depressing with a fifth of the convoy having been lost and nobody in Eskimo saw any enemy planes destroyed. Two further desultory bomber attacks took place and many bombs were dropped through the clouds and fell harmlessly. In addition to this there was always the threat of attack by the enemy surface ships stationed in Norway, in particular the Tirpitz. Air reconnaissance flights were organised flying from England. A small force of our cruisers was lurking just west of Iceland and two of our battleships and escorts were at sea near Jan Mayen Island.
The enemy pocket battleship Scheer and two cruisers were on the move and to add to our woes a Catalina of Coastal Command reported that the Tirpitz was not in her usual berth near Trondheim. It transpired that she was exercising in the fiord, but we were not to know this. Eight of our submarines had been stationed at strategic points along the Norwegian coast and one fired some torpedoes at the Scheer without scoring any hits. In the meantime Eskimo had picked up a large number of survivors from the sunken American Ship, John Penn.
At midday on September 14 we were detailed off to escort the Avenger whilst one of her attendant destroyers was away 'oiling' This coincided with a determined attack on her by twenty torpedo aircraft which had managed to come in undetected beneath the radar beam. At the time she was flying off aircraft and steaming into the wind in the opposite direction to the convoy. Not realising this, the enemy attacked her from astern so that the torpedoes had no chance of a hit. After releasing their torpedoes the planes rushed by and one felt that one could almost touch them. Almost immediately a dozen JU88 bombers attacked, presumably meaning to drop their bombs during the torpedo attack. This time a good many of the Hurricanes were in the air harassing the attackers with very good effect shooting some down, damaging others and generally spoiling their concentration. Of course the enemy had no fighter cover as it was too far from their bases at Bardufoss and Banak in Norway.
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This is a well-known photograph of Eskimo taken while we were escorting Avenger showing a huge explosion just behind us. I think the photo foreshortens a bit because nobody could recollect the 'incident.' After this attack we saw a number of bombers crashing and passed close to some survivors sitting on the wreckage of their floating plane. They were not picked up in case one offered a free target for one of the following U-boats.
On one occasion we were ordered to sweep across the stern of the convoy and saw two U-boats about five miles away travelling on the surface and they promptly dived. Our job was to protect the convoy and it was not the policy to spend time attacking them. As the convoy speed was only eight knots they could easily get ahead by making a detour as their surface speed was sixteen knots.
During these attacks one other ship, the Mary Luckenback, was struck by a torpedo and blew up with a huge explosion. Sadly with all the gunmen trigger happy, three Hurricanes were shot down - whether they were aimed at, or were merely unlucky in running into the thousands of bullets that were filling the air, no one knows. Luckily the three pilots were picked up.
It was now cloudy and when the next day some fifty bombers flew over the convoy they dropped their bombs haphazardly mostly through the clouds. The records show that they lost thirty-four aircraft and had sunk nine ships and a great number more aircraft must have been damaged
There was a lot of cloud and air assaults became less, being a combination of us getting further away from the enemy air base and the damage that had been inflicted on their aircraft and the main danger was now from submarines. The anti-submarine sets in the ship had a range of about two miles, but under Arctic conditions this was somewhat variable because the temperature variations of the water frequently bent the beam downwards thus greatly impairing their efficiency,
All personnel had already been under intense pressure for a week with half the crew closed up at actions stations for four hours and the four hours off during which time one had to eat and sleep. In addition there were frequent calls to action stations when everybody had to be at their posts. With very little darkness we often did not know if it was day or night or when one should snatch something to eat and it was excessively tiring and we lost all idea of time. Destroyers were not equipped to be at sea for so long. Our diet consisted of cornflakes and condensed milk, ships biscuits and a choice of bully beef or 'herrings in' the sailors name for tinned pilchards.
Destroyer's bridges were open to the elements and being so far north it was very cold and often wet and cloudy, but the latter were often a blessing as the conditions were bad for aircraft. We had balaclavas, duffel coats and sea boots though one did not want these on if sunk and left in the water, The tribal class of destroyers had been adopted by an American lady affectionately know as 'Auntie May' Regularly she sent parcels of woollens to the ship and also splendid fur lined lumberjack boots which were eagerly accepted. On watch one had to be alert even if not being attacked, continually zig-zagging, fuelling and on the lookout for submarines. One came off watch exhausted and very cold. Below decks it was like a hothouse with practically no ventilation and a couple of hundred sailors making an almost unbearable fug. To sleep one removed ones boots and duffel coat and dropped off at once. For the whole of this operation everybody remained in their clothes and did not wash or shave for well over a fortnight.
From thence miraculously only one more ship was lost before reaching Murmansk and that was by an aircraft after the escorts had transferred to the homeward convoy designated QP 14. By that time they had some fighter cover from Murmansk and a couple of Soviet destroyers ventured out to assist.
On September 17 the majority of the escorts transferred to the homecoming convoy.
Convoy QP 14
This consisted of 15 ships escorted by a few naval units that had been to Murmansk.
They sailed on September 13 and with a large number of the escorts of PQ 18 we transferred to the homeward convoy. We were not much bothered by enemy bombers presumably because the ships were carrying no cargo though we were continually shadowed. Another reason may have been the fact that there was low cloud nearly all the time and frequently the visibility was bad.
We skirted Spitsbergen and kept as far north as possible right up to the ice barrier. There were between half a dozen and ten U-boats lurking around most of the time but few attacks developed.
By September 20 it looked as if there would be no air attacks and that the only danger was U-boats. It was decided not to risk the Avenger and she was sent home with her destroyer escorts at a speed of about 14 knots. She had done a tremendous job. Her fifteen Hurricanes besides shooting down several bombers had a huge psychological effect on the enemy as did her three Swordfish anti-submarine planes that harassed the U-boats. Our airman must all have been utterly exhausted by the time they left.
The departure of the Avenger was meant to coincide with the arrival of aircraft from Coastal Command which did not materialise. The convoy QP 14 suffered no losses for three or four days until the small minesweeper Leda was torpedoed and sunk. Later that evening the merchant ship Silver Sword was torpedoed and sunk and later the same day our sister ship Somali was torpedoed which flooded her engine-room and knocked one of her funnels askew.
The weather was calm and she was taken in tow by Ashanti and we were ordered to escort her leaving twelve destroyers with the convoy. Possibly because the protecting screen was smaller it was penetrated by a submarine, which sunk three ships one of which was the oil tanker Grey Ranger. In the meantime the Somali had been towed over four hundred miles in four days and hopes were rising that she would be saved.
I had the middle watch and was zig-zagging at slow speed ahead of the tow when the weather began to deteriorate and the sea suddenly became very choppy and Eskimo lost steerage way and had to increase speed. Suddenly there was an alarm and the Somali began slowly to crack up and soon jack-knifed and sank. Most of her crew had already been taken off by Ashanti but some were left in the ship and took to the Carly rafts and we busied ourselves trying to rescue them. We got a number on board but were pitching so much and being tossed around like a cork, exposing our keel, which crashed down sickeningly on the few that were left on one of the early rafts. Sadly we then steamed homewards eventually finishing up in Seidisfiord in Iceland, which completed our three weeks of adventure and allowed us to wash, eat and get hot meals again. PHEW!
To summarise the results, which I have taken from other publications were: PQ 18, 43 ships set out of which 13 were sunk so 30 arrived. QP 14 (homeward convoy), 16 ships set out of which 3 were sunk.
German aircraft destroyed, taken from their records were: 44, including 38 torpedo bombers and surely a large number more must have been damaged. Of their 12 submarines 3 were sunk, another 5 were damaged. They therefore suffered quite substantially.
With winter approaching all their remaining torpedo bombers were transferred to the Mediterranean area where things were hotting up.
As the autumn of 1942 approached with America in the war, we were able to have more escorts for our convoys, several 'Woolworth Aircraft Carriers,' better naval aircraft, more merchant ships and the tide was beginning to turn.
We eventually arrived back at Scapa Flow at the very end of September and went alongside our depot ship Maidstone. The Somali had been the flotilla leader of the sixth flotilla but the Captain called D.6 had been ill and missed the convoy. We were designated to take on the leaders duties and embarked Captain J W Eaton and his staff consisting of specialist officers in navigation, gunnery, torpedo and submarine and signals plus his secretary. This entailed a wholesale clear-out of the wardroom and I was one of the few that remained. The ship's company hardly changed at all. We were also due for our 'boiler clean' which meant being out of action for five days giving us a much needed rest.
After this we had a few days shake down and then we continued with the daily grind of exercising our guns, torpedoes and Asdic and when not doing this we escorted major units exercising in the waters outside Scapa Flow. This was all very tedious work!
Later in October things began to stir and it was evident that something was in the wind. We therefore got our Arctic clothing in case it was another Russian convoy. However, we were to go in the opposite direction. A very powerful force set out from Scapa including the Nelson, Rodney, Duke of York and the aircraft carriers Formidable, Victorious and Furious. Eskimo was one of the large numbers of screening destroyers.
The North Atlantic was littered with convoys all set for North Africa and proceeding at different speeds. It was a huge undertaking and meant calling in all available escort vessels and supply ships, troop carriers, oilers, boom defence vessels etc.
By this time of the war, escort destroyers were being turned out in large numbers and included about forty new 'Hunt' class destroyers. The Germans were also launching submarines at a fast rate.
Our convoys, numbering about four, were routed well out into the Atlantic. The slow ones were leading and the faster troop carrying liners, coming up behind. By a pure coincidence a homeward bound convoy from the Freetown area, which was nearer inshore, had attracted a U-boat pack and suffered severely while all the North African bound convoys miraculously suffered no losses at all.
The battle squadron was to deter the Italian fleet from putting to sea or to deal with any interference from the French. This formidable force cruised around in the area to the north of Algiers.
The landings began at night in the early hours of November 8. Nobody knew how the French would react. In the event the French Navy, embittered by the attack on their ships at Oran earlier in the war, were very hostile. There were protective booms across the harbours of both Algiers and Oran which seemed a bit odd as the French were not at war and these were rammed by our ships and some very unpleasant short sharp actions took place resulting in the sinking of several units on both sides.
At Casablanca the Americans encountered very strong opposition. While this was happening army units were being ferried ashore in landing crafts in very large numbers. These crafts were carried in liners, some being very big ships, which lowered them from about three miles out at sea. These large and valuable ships were escorted from the area as soon as they had landed their troops. They had little opposition and in many places they were welcomed and quickly occupied the ports and aerodromes. After a day or so all was quiet in Oran and Algiers and no damage was done in the ports and Spitfire aircraft were being flown in rapidly from Gibraltar in increasing numbers.
While this was happening, the battle of El Alamein had been won and spirits were rising all round and Tobruk had been taken on November 11. By a pure coincidence Admiral Darlan, the number two to General Petain at Vichy, was in Algiers visiting his sick son. Bowing to the inevitable, he ordered the French to lay down arms so there was no further trouble.
There were a number of sporadic attacks by German bombers, which were unescorted as they were out of range of their fighters. They were met by the Spitfires and Martlet fighters of the fleet and by Spitfires now operating from Algiers. They did not do much damage as the targets were so spread out and our fighters shot down quite a lot.
The Germans reacted by sending in some U-boats to the Mediterranean, but this was a slow process. There were now enough anti-submarine vessels that could be spared to hunt them to destruction, which was done with considerable success. Italian submarines and aircraft played very little part in the proceedings.
After about a week it was safe enough for the main covering force to enter the very fine harbour of Mers el Kabir, which is about two miles to the west of Oran. With the major ships in harbour a pair of destroyers took it in turns to keep an anti-submarine patrol outside the harbour. This continued till our boom defences were organised.
The Germans were now becoming very stretched out and on the defensive. This allowed a convoy of four ships from the eastern Mediterranean to slip into Malta later in November. Later in the month the Germans reacted and advanced into Vichy held France and the French Navy at Toulon scuttled over seventy of their ships, which was a very ignominious end, some of the units being quite large.
Feverish activity took place along the coast. Follow-up convoys were using two very good harbours at Oran and Algiers while along the coast Bougie and Bone were occupied. Regrettably the important port of Bizerta was not reached and the Germans quickly occupied both Bizerta and Tunis without any opposition from the French.
The seas in the Mediterranean can become very choppy and rough and they were severe enough to pour over the breakwater at Mers el Kebir. In the cramped harbour conditions the smaller ships bumped about nastily and on several occasions we had to put to sea and ride out the storm in uncomfortable conditions.
We made occasional sweeps to sea with the fleet and on one occasion when we were lighting up our boilers, some oil that had leaked into the bilges was set on fire. It was no good using hoses as the burning oil would have floated so we had to seal off the boiler room and let the fire burn itself out. The heat was enough to melt the paint on the ships side and to melt all the electric cables and put us out of action. All electrical artificers in the fleet worked round the clock for four days to repair the damage.
Windsor Castle sinking
On one occasion we were sent out to escort the damaged fast minelayer Manxman, which was being used to take supplies to Malta. A submarine had torpedoed her when steaming at 25 knots. She did not sink and we escorted her back to Mers el Kebir.
On another occasion we were ordered out to the stricken Union Castle liner, Windsor Castle, which had been hit by a torpedo the previous day but had not sunk. Everybody was taken off and there was no loss of life.
The Hunt class destroyer Farndale was already there and had passed a towline and signalled in code to the Commander in Chief Admiral Cunningham and received the reply "Your signal very corrupt and provoking. Why have you not towed her halfway to Algiers by now?"
One weak bulkhead was holding the water back and shortly after our arrival this gave way and she began to sink by the stern. The towing party of Farndale were still on her forecastle and they hurriedly slid down the towrope as the stern went under and she slid back in the water with the bows rearing vertically in the air before she plunged into the deep; the final phase taking just a few minutes.
Another time Eskimo was moored alongside the Nelson when I was sent for by Admiral Wills, who was temporarily in command of the fleet. The admiral's walk in a flagship is on the starboard side of the quarterdeck.
As he emerged to take his constitutional walk before breakfast he was greeted by a minor smoke screen and an aroma of our captain's breakfast of bacon and eggs. Unluckily the chimney from the captain's galley was level with the upper deck of the Nelson. I assured him I would deal with the situation. I cannot remember how the problem was overcome but all I can remember is that our captain did not starve!
Another occasion when we were in action the sub lieutenant said "Shall I let down the anchor." The captain went red in the face and pronounced "Let down is not a naval expression, let down is what girl guides do to their knickers." So now we know.
Occasionally we went back to Gibraltar for a bit of a rest. I recall an ENSA concert party with Leslie Henson, Bea Lillie and Michael Wilding and Vivien Leigh coming to Gib to entertain us and somebody singing the song 'White Christmas' which I heard for the first time. We were very well supplied with the latest films, which were passed round eagerly. Admiral Mountbatten and Noel Coward had brought this about and it was much appreciated. During this time the U-boat war in the Atlantic was in full swing and I remember the awful news that seven out of nine oil tankers had been sunk in a convoy somewhere near Curaco.
We now began to operate from Bone on a regular basis. Every evening a cruiser and two destroyers would leave port and proceed to the Cape Bon area to cut off any ships trying to evacuate the Axis forces from Tunis, returning to harbour at daybreak. There were two teams doing this and we went out on alternate nights.
With other sea, air and submarine forces operating from Malta the enemy sea traffic was virtually stopped. We met an E-boat once but it was an elusive target and ran away.
A good many aircraft were being used by the Germans to evacuate key personnel using Tunis airport, which had a concrete runway. Several of these passed over us as we were patrolling at night near Cape Bon. We could never see them but heard them, so to keep up morale we fired up into the clouds in their direction. It must have come as a shock to them even if our shots were nowhere near!
Quite often there were bombing raids on Bone harbour either at dawn or dusk when we always manned our guns. We felt rather like sitting ducks but never got hit though there was the wreck of one merchant ship in the harbour. After our stint at Bone we used to go to Algiers for a rest.
Around Christmas we saw the encouraging sight of flying fortresses overhead on their way to bomb the enemy. We were now seeing a huge increase in landing craft; the LCIs, which carried infantrymen and the large LST (landing ship tank) with their huge bow doors. Algiers was a hive of activity unloading ships. All this time the Eighth Army was pressing on through Tripoli and up to Tunisia with a slight delay at the Mareth Line.
A great triumph came on May 14, 1943 when the German general Von Arnim surrendered in Tunis and about a quarter of a million prisoners were taken. By now convoys were reaching Malta regularly and ships were returning there and the greatly augmented fighter force of spitfires kept the enemy planes away by day.
About this time Eskimo needed a 'boiler clean' lasting five days and we went back to Gibraltar for this. As our captain was in charge of the 6th destroyer flotilla he temporarily moved to one of the other ships and I was left in command temporarily. On completion we escorted a cruiser back to Malta and on the way she had two torpedoes fired at her which missed the target. We were detached to hunt the submarine but failed to locate it.
Early in June 1943 we were at Algiers and a message was passed round that an important person was about to appear on the scene called 'Mister Lion'. Came the day and His Majesty the King arrived and cheered up everybody. A few days later we were ordered to Tripoli. The harbour installations had been severely damaged and mined by the retreating enemy and the harbour entrance was blocked by sunken concrete filled ships. It had been a difficult job repairing the place but when we arrived the entrance was big enough to pass through. The purpose was to escort His Majesty to Malta in HMS Aurora. He was due to embark at Tripoli in an ML (motor launch) but the sea was a bit choppy so we did the job. He duly came aboard with Lord Alanbrook and was transferred to Aurora outside the harbour. The trip went off without incident and he was wildly acclaimed by the Maltese.
King George VI - Mister Lion
That concluded the North African campaign and for the next few weeks we fiddled around returning to Malta during that time. Convoys for the east were now passing through the Mediterranean, which saved a great deal of time instead of going round the Cape.
On one of these convoys my father was the commodore and we met as sea and exchanged signals. We had now been eight months in the Mediterranean with our pay accounts still at Scapa which made us wonder what lay in the future. It soon became apparent that we were not going home.
Sicily - 'Operation Husky'
At the end of June 1943 we were idling our time away at Malta. Never had the island seen so many ships of all descriptions filling every berth that was available. So much so that we were allocated our anchorage in the large bay of Marsaxlokk in the south of the island. Here we were unexpectedly visited by General Montgomery and he gave a speech on the upper deck to a rare audience of sailors. He said words to the effect that he always won, 'hit them for six' etc. It was very inspiring and we knew we would win.
Our next operation was 'Husky', the attack on Sicily. We set off from Malta with a huge convoy of assorted ships and landing craft poised to attack a few hours before dawn the next day. Our area was the south west corner of Sicily and we had embarked an army officer known as 'Bombardment Liaison Officer' (BLO) to direct our gunfire as required by the landing force. There was to be no bombing or bombardment before the assaults so that the enemy would not be alerted.
The enemy had no idea where the landing would be whether it be Greece, Corsica or Southern Italy thus they were not too heavily entrenched along the coast. During the night an unpleasant head wind sprung up with an uncomfortable choppy sea. A large fleet of aircraft, towing gliders, were the vanguard of the attack. These were blown off course and passed directly over the convoy at night and everybody opened fire shooting skywards to the unseen enemy not realising they were our aircraft. This headwind caused a large number of gliders being released early and falling short of their targets many landing in the sea and we spent part of the morning picking up survivors.
The landings took place over a wide area with Americans on the west and ourselves on the east. Great armadas of landing craft and assault ships converged on the area arriving from Malta and Tunisia whilst some larger liners came straight from America and England and the sea was covered with a mass of ships of all kinds. Apart from a few hiccoughs the landings were completely successful and there were few casualties with any opposition being quickly overcome.
Soon the wind eased and the day was lovely and warm and sunny with little enemy activity. The important port of Syracuse with undamaged facilities was captured on the first day and our minesweepers very quickly cleared it of mines and the port was soon used for unloading. A few enemy bombers made sporadic attacks on the afternoon of the first day causing minor damage, which included sinking the white painted hospital ship Talamba. As can be imagined it was a terrible sight. While this was happening, a strong battle fleet was just to the south in case the Italian fleet should emerge. Enemy submarines were absent at the beginning, but when they appeared occasionally in the future they were severely dealt with.
On the second day we embarked Rear Admiral Troubridge and the port party of Syracuse and after disembarking them we did a sweep up the coast to Catania. So passed the first two days.
On the third day in the morning, when it was still dark, we again embarked Admiral Troubridge. As we got under way an aircraft which we heard but could not see, must have noticed the efflorescence of our wake and dropped a stick of four bombs. These straddled the ship, one scoring a direct hit.
I was at the time stationed on the pom pom gun and the bomb passed about three or four yards away making a neat hole in the upper deck and exploding in one of our fuel tanks causing huge flames from the atomised fuel. These flames shot up through our ammunition chutes at each of the four corners of the pom pom deck. We were surrounded by a wall of flame and I thought the end of the world had come but miraculously the gun crew remained untouched. Not so lucky were the stern guns crew. The flames shot along a passageway killing some of the ammunition supply party and half the guns crew.
The fire was in fact a huge flash and was gone as quickly as it came. The oil had cushioned the explosion which broke open some of the ships side riveting and the compartment flooded causing us to sink at the stern by several feet and our engines were put out of action. All the lights went out and the ship came to a stop. I rushed aft to see the damage and looking down the magazine hatch saw a light. I thought that for one dreadful moment the magazine was on fire and would blow up at any moment. By the grace of God it turned out to be an emergency light torch, which was designed to come on if power failed. There were a few small fires of no consequence, which were soon put out.
Fairly soon our sister ship Tartar arrived on the scene and took us in tow and we proceeded to Malta at about six knots. In mid morning we passed the aircraft carrier Indomitable in which my elder brother Rodney was the gunnery officer and he signalled enquiring if I was all right. The bomb had killed about fifteen of our personnel and these were committed to the deep in accordance with the usual naval custom. As the captain had to be on the bridge it was left to me to conduct the burial service. The bodies of the deceased were lashed up in their hammocks with a shell to weigh them down. A sloping mess table was fitted up on the quarter deck and as I read the service the bodies were slid down the table to their watery grave. As our comrades took leave from us on a peaceful, calm, sunny day it was difficult to imagine that there was a war in progress.
We still had another fifteen seamen who were badly burnt and these were landed a soon as we reached Malta and sent to the naval hospital at Bighi. Sadly they all died of pneumonia a few days later as the result of their burns. Another old naval custom is that when anybody dies his personal effects are sent to his next of kin but his kit is auctioned and the proceeds are likewise sent to his relatives. The coxswain conducted the auction and shipmates were able to show their appreciation by paying exaggerated prices for the items.
Two days after we were hit my elder brother's ship, the aircraft carrier Indomitable, was hit by a single torpedo. The plane having flown in low at dusk escaped detection. The carrier had to go to America for repairs.
Back in Malta we went straight into the dry dock to examine and assess the damage. One of our propeller shafts was bent and unusable. A number of holes in the ships side were plugged and were made watertight. Here we sat in this dock for a week or two before being moved out to one of the jetties. One of our vital fuel supply pumps had been smashed which rendered the ship immobile. It so happened that there was a similar pump in the wreck of the destroyer Legion which had been bombed and sunk in the harbour. Divers were able to retrieve this with difficulty and fit it in Eskimo to make us a going concern.
Our captain and his staff left the ship so they could conduct operations from elsewhere and I assumed command of a semi-wreck. After some weeks we were patched up and made seaworthy and were able to proceed to Gibraltar at about fifteen knots. We had to wait here twiddling our thumbs till some ship would accompany us back to England. A couple of battleships refused the responsibility, but fortunately a bit later a cruiser, I think the Cardiff, took up the offer and we set off.
As our main fuel tank was out of action we only had enough oil to get us to England with little to spare. In the event of any bad weather we would have had to turn back before the halfway mark. Fortunately the weather was very calm and we made it to Milford Haven where they ordered us round to be repaired at Immingham on the Humber and we duly arrived there safely. We had been away just over a year and had seen plenty of action and everybody looked forward to a spell of leave.
I received a mention in dispatches for my stint in the ship. I left the ship here and enjoyed a months leave in nice summer weather at Inverleithen, just south of Edinburgh where my wife was staying with my daughter now aged twenty months.
Bombs falling during the Syracuse landings
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Following my leave I was sent on a round of weekly courses in torpedo, gunnery and anti-submarine warfare and was then appointed to the Viceroy. She had been built in 1917 and early in the war has been converted. This consisted of removing her four 4.7" guns and replacing them with two twin 4" anti-aircraft guns and fitting up four 0.5" machine guns each side on a platform amidship and just below the bridge on either side was a single oerlikon. She carried a crew of about 160 and was being refitted at Jarrow on the Tyne.
On completion we sailed to Rosyth to join the other twenty or so destroyers that formed the 'Rosyth Escort Force'. The majority were V or W class destroyers similar to ourselves, the other eight or nine being American 'four stackers' on lease. The name was derived from the fact that they had four funnels.
After working up and doing various gunnery and anti-submarine exercises we joined the operating team. All of the ships had some form of camouflage in shades of light grey, white and light blue in a variety of different patterns, which were taken from a book of designs. By this time the dirty pink 'elephants breath' camouflage had gone out of fashion. Our duties were to escort convoys from Methil on the north side of the Firth of Forth opposite Edinburgh to their 'dispersal point' in the mouth of the river Thames.
All the destroyers had open bridges so it was extremely draughty, wet and uncomfortable, especially in the bitingly cold ease winds. Everybody wore oilskins and 'sou westers' and lots of woollies and we all survived to tell the tale. On these occasions lifelines were rigged consisting of wires overhead with sliding ropes one could hang onto if it was necessary to get aft from the bridge in rough weather. My cabin was aft, as were all the others, but I also had a sea cabin just below the bridge where I spent the whole trip. All the watch-keeping officers had to pass along the length of the upper deck to get to the wardroom and their cabins.
At crack of dawn the next day we proceeded across the Thames to the Southend area and picked up the northbound convoy made up of ships that had discharged their cargoes. The further north that the convoy could get through E-boat alley the better so the commodore usually put the slower ship in front and told it to get a move on. For this part of the journey an additional pair of destroyers from Harwich would reinforce the escort and patrol seaward as a protection against E-boats.
As the war was approaching its final stages there were not many losses of merchant ships, but there was one curious incident.
The Richard Montgomery
The American Liberty ship Richard Montgomery had a cargo of bombs and ammunition destined for the second front. For some reason she was ordered to anchor just off the swept channel and by mischance she swung onto a sandbank at a very high tide and stuck there. She could not be refloated till the next spring tide in a fortnight and in the meantime she broke her back. We first passed her with her flags still flying but in a sinking condition. A month later she was still there with her back broken and her stem sticking up in the air. To this day over fifty years later her masts are still showing and there are worries that one-day her cargo will blow up.
There was one sad incident when a new submarine of ours was passing by the convoy it collided with a trawler at the back and was sunk. The main excitement and achievement came with this episode with the U-boat
Sinking U 1274
On April 11 1945 HMS Viceroy was zig-zagging about a mile ahead of convoy FS 84, a small one consisting of seven ships in two columns, three being in the port column and the other four in the starboard. The convoy was abreast Newcastle, proceeding south in calm weather and good visibility at a speed of seven knots.
At 1933 SS Athelduke was rent by two explosions. The water was too deep for mines and it was assumed the damage was caused by torpedoes from a submarine. There had been no previous submarine activity in the area during the war. I turned the ship to port and increased speed to 18 knots and in three minutes picked up a good echo at 2200 yards, the extreme range of the Asdic being about 2500 yards. A difficulty round the coasts is the number of wrecks all of which give an echo, as do shoals of fish, the latter can usually be distinguished by a duller note. This echo had 'doppler' which indicated a moving target with some hydrophone effect from the U-boat propellers. Speed was reduced to eight knots; the depth charges set to explode at 100 feet. Speed was then increased to twenty knots and an attack was carried out with an amount of aim off to allow for the movement of the submarine from a range of 150 yards when the set lost contact making allowance for the length of the ship and for the pattern of five depth charges dropped over the stern The first one was followed by a second one shortly afterwards, at the same time firing a charge each side from the throwers, which catapulted the charges some 15 yards outwards, and finally a fifth charge. A few seconds later with the ship about 100 yards away, the charges exploded. The ship did a big shudder, leapt a foot or two in the sea and blacked out as all the electric switches were thrown off leaving everything in darkness. The plot, which tracked our movements and the Asdic went dead but shortly the switches were re-fixed and we were back in action. Another attack with a pattern of five charges was carried out ten minutes later and produced some traces of oil. The third attack was broken off as the other accompanying destroyers got in the way. By this time the contact appeared to have no movement and had possibly bottomed in about 250 feet of water.
At 2017, forty minutes after the first attack, the third attack was carried out, speed fifteen knots, depth charges set to 250 feet. The first charge produced a distinctly prolonged explosion and some more oil. I signalled to Woolston who was stationed at the stern of the convoy that I thought this was it, but he went off chasing something else - probably a wreck on the bottom. At 2113 a fourth and last attack was carried out. In the meantime the SS Athelduke sank slowly and darkness set in.
The 30th escort group from the Western Approaches then arrived on the scene headed by the Lauceston Castle who carried out a squid attack on the contact. The squid was a very much more accurate weapon as it was fired in a pattern ahead of the attacking vessel and Asdic contact could be maintained until the end. We then rejoined the convoy.
On arrival at Rosyth I spoke to captain D, who was Ruck Keene and told him the supposed submarine was still there and I was fairly convinced it was a submarine. He was rather bored with the office life and said "Bugger the office, I will go and have a look at it." He boarded us and in company with HMS Vivien we proceeded to the scene at a good speed.
On arrival in the vicinity of the fateful spot it was slightly foggy and we had difficulty in locating the buoy marks. All was well in the end however and we carried out an attack and shortly afterwards a grey cylinder popped to the surface. I hoped and prayed it contained a dinghy, as it was similar to one from a German submarine that I had once seen on the quayside. Captain Ruck Keene said I had better go aft and hoist it aboard myself, which I did. On opening it up there was no dinghy but instead there was a case containing 72 bottles of brandy!
U-Boat cylinder containing brandy
Capt D sent off a signal to the Admiralty to the effect that a German dinghy container had been recovered from the wreck of a submarine containing a case of 72 bottles of brandy fortunately none of which were damaged. One bottle was put in a casket and sent to Winston Churchill who acknowledged the gift. Capt D said he would give me the letter, but he never did. Various other items were brought up including some leather clothing containing photographs and a leave pass. This was the last U-boat of the war to be sunk by a surface ship.
German leave pass from the U-Boat
Letter from Churchill
In due course I was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the exploit.
Immediately the war in Europe finished a number of the destroyers in the Rosyth Escort Force proceeded to Norway with pairs of destroyers going to Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim.
On the trip home we were told to dispose of all our ammunition and we spent the whole day throwing it overboard into the North Sea.
On arrival at Rosyth we de-stored ship which entailed emptying it of everything moveable and in the end it was like an empty coffin and everyone felt very sad. On completion we were dispersed to be demobilised or given new appointments. Having been a close-knit team for so long the final dispersion was a great anti-climax.
With the war in Europe over my brother Sherard returned home after nearly three years as a prisoner of war; first in Italy and then in Germany. On the last day of the war the prisoners were being marched along by the Germans when one of our Spitfires shot up the column. He was marching along with his captain Commander Brian Scurfield when the latter had both his legs shot off and quickly died - what a terrible fate!
Sherard was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross and in the same Gazette I also received a similar award plus another mention in despatches for.
My father retired. He was the only commodore of convoys to work as such convoy duties for the duration of the war and he was made a KBE for his services. He completed 52 ocean convoys including ONM 249, which consisted of 153 ships. The war took its toll on his health and he finally died in the naval hospital in Haslar in 1953.
Brothers in arms