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HMS Birmingham

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Birmingham prewar in China colours
Birmingham prewar in China colours
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Ken and Alf Walls served on HMS Birmingham from the time it was commissioned to early in 1941. This is an extract of the family history written by Ken's son, Terry Walls. Could Terry Walls email me please, a relative of a sailor who died on the German trawler on April 26th 1940 would like to get in touch with you.

Birmingham - My Father's Passage to Manhood

An extract from my family history


Terry Walls © June 2002

My father, Ken, joined the Royal Navy on the 20th of April 1937 at Portsmouth, Hampshire. He was stationed at HMS Victory, the shore establishment. He was 18.5 years old. I was always told that he, and his brothers, joined the Navy like so many Englishmen before them because it was a way out of poverty. His older brother Ray had joined at 15.5 years.

He was obviously dedicated and keen. His introductory training was completed after eight weeks and he was judged the "... the smartest and most efficient of his Class during the eight week course" and presented with a book to record the achievement. The book was Ships of the Royal Navy (British Commonwealth of Nations) by Oscar Parkes, 1936. Dad has hand written comments next to some ships - e.g. "sunk Dutch East Indies", "Overdue presumed lost" which he obviously recorded during the course of the war.

Birmingham was a Southampton Class Light Cruiser launched on 1 September 1936 and was completed on 18 November 1937. These cruisers displaced from 9,100 to 11,350 tons. They were powered by 4-shaft Parsons geared turbines operated by 4 Admiralty 3-drum boilers developing 75,000shp. They had a speed of up to 32 knots. They were 591 feet in length and 62 feet in beam drawing 17 feet. It had a crew of 748. Armament was 4 triple 6 inch guns, 4 twin 4 inch guns, 4 3-pounder saluting guns and two quadruple 2-pound pompom (anti-aircraft) guns.

Birmingham early in the war, air radar has been removed by the censor
Birmingham early in the war, air radar has been removed by the censor
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Dad (and his brother Alf) was assigned to this brand new ship on commissioning. It was immediately assigned to the China Station and sailed in late 1937. My mother told me that Dad had asked her prior to his departure to become engaged. Although she was a bit sceptical about this young man I think mainly because of his age - she was 22 and he only 19, she agreed. She knew there was plenty of time and they had been going out for a few years.

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Ken on the left, and his brother Alf on Birmingham in Feb 1939 at Wei-Hai-Wei in northern China

When Neville Chamberlain finally declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939 following the invasion of Poland two days earlier, my father and his brother (my uncle) Alf were still both stationed on the HMS Birmingham on the China station. History records that as soon as Chamberlain advised the House of Commons that Britain was at war with Germany, the air raid sirens wailed and wailed.

The Royal Navy was of course immediately placed on a war footing and Birmingham was ordered home from China. She returned via Malta for a refit and then she joined the Home Fleet operating out of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. According to my uncle Bill, Alf was a bit tight with money. Bill claims that on return to England he less that subtly reminded Dad that he still owed him for a stamp he had borrowed whilst in China!

I don't know when Birmingham got back to the UK but assume that it must have been either just before Christmas 1939 or early in 1940. The early months of this war became known as the Phoney or the Twilight War. Why? - Because on the western front there was no shooting going on.

The strategic situation changed in April. The real war started for Dad and Alf in Norway. Norway is only about 300 miles from either Scapa Flow or the Shetlands at its closest and about 800 miles to Narvik - only two to four days sailing in British warships.

On the 5th of April the British Government decided that the navy should lay a minefield off Vestfjord and a minelayer and four destroyers were despatched from Scapa Flow to accomplish this task. Birmingham and two destroyers (Hostile and Fearless) were sent further north to intercept what purported to be fleet of fishing boats and the to join the rest of the fleet off Vestfjord on the 7th.

On the morning of the 7th British reconnaissance aircraft reported a German cruiser and two destroyers steering northwards. By early afternoon the following message was received from the Admiralty:

"Recent reports suggest a German expedition is being prepared. Hitler is reported from Copenhagen to have ordered unostentatious movement of one division in ten ships by night to land at Narvik, with simultaneous occupation of Jutland. Sweden to be left alone. Moderates said to be opposing the plan. Date given for arrival at Narvik was 8th April."

The fleet was ordered to go to "one hours steam."

Later that afternoon, the Admiralty advised more German ships (including a Scharnhorst class ship and ten destroyers) had been sighted steering northwards. The enemy fleet was obviously on the move.

The enemy fleet was reported as comprising one battlecruiser, one pocket battleship, three cruisers and about 12 destroyers. The British fleet that was to try and intercept them comprised three capital ships (Rodney, Valiant and Repulse), three cruisers and 10 destroyers. Birmingham was already assigned to assist Renown protect the minelayers who were mining Vestfjord (the entry to Narvik). Other British ships were at sea protecting two convoys but these were turned back to British waters as soon they were advised of the German movements. As it turned out, some lost contact and at least 13 were destroyed or captured by the Germans.

The mine laying was completed by early on the morning of the 8th of April. When the fleet arrived during this exercise Birmingham and her two destroyers were not in sight! Within three hours the first contact with the enemy (the Gloworm came across elements of the German fleet) was made and after exchanging gunfire for some time and sustaining damage, the German ship Hipper accidentally rammed Gloworm as they both emerged from the smokescreen laid down by Gloworm. Gloworm blew up and sank within minutes. Only 40 British sailors survived.

It became apparent very quickly that the invasion of Norway was underway and the British fleet needed to stop them.

A signal sent by Admiral Whitworth at 1850 on the 8th said, among other things, "Our objective is to prevent German forces reaching Narvik; my present intention is to alter course at 2100 to 280 degrees, and turn 180 degrees in succession at midnight; enemy heavy ships and light forces have been reported off Norwegian coast; position of Birmingham forces is not known." It was later reported to him that Repulse, Penelope, Bedouin, Eskimo, Punjabi and Kimberley were coming to assist. The official record states that at this time (about 1700 - i.e. 5pm on 8th April) the position of the Birmingham force was not known. The commander (Admiral Whitworth) was building up his forces and signalled Birmingham and Repulse to join him. The Repulse did but for some unknown reason (to me that is) Birmingham never made it. I find this quite intriguing - Birmingham seems quite elusive.

A British force had left the Clyde in Scotland aboard SS Empress of Australia, Monarch of Bermuda, and Reina del Pacifico on the 11th of April and was later joined by the SS Batory and Chroby from Scapa. This convoy was protected by a fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Layton in Manchester, in company with Birmingham, Cairo, Proctor and five destroyers. Other ships were diverted to also ensure the convoys safe passage.

The ships joined the convoy on the 13th and proceeded to escort them into Norwegian waters. At 1907 on the 14th Admiral Layton received orders for the convoy to divide - the record shows that they were then at 68 degrees 10 minutes N; 10 degrees 20 minutes S about 130 miles from Vagsfjord. Manchester, Birmingham, Cairo, Vanoc, Whirlwind, Highlander and 10 destroyers under Layton were despatched to Namsos. At the same time the first British troops had begun to land - an advance party from Glasgow and Sheffield. Also the troops onboard the Namsos cruisers were ordered to be landed.

A summary of the situation in Norway on the 15th of April is that "in the northern area Vice Admiral Whitworth was cruising off the Lofoten Islands in the Warspite, standing by to support the operations against Narvik ...Valiant remained in Vagsfjord on patrol till 1900, 15th, when she sailed for Scapa ... on the same day Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork, wearing his flag in Aurora, met General Mackesy for the first time in Vagsfjord, who had arrived there in Southampton the previous day." The record goes on to state that "Vice Admiral Cunningham, with the Devonshire, Berwick and Furious was operating in the Tromso area... In the central area (Tronheim) Vice Admiral Layton with Manchester, Birmingham, Cairo and three destroyers and two transports was nearing Lillesjona where he had been directed to transfer the troops to destroyers for passage to Namsos." The German landing had all been reasonably successful although air and surface attacks by British forces had taken quite a toll of their ships.

The assault on Tronheim (Operation Hammer) was cancelled as the German's had far superior forces in the area and was building up all the time.

The fleet however was very active escorting convoys to and from Norway taking troops and supplies to those already ashore. The ships maintained a blockade of Norway and generally harassed enemy shipping and used their armaments to shell German positions ashore.

Birmingham seems to have operated in these roles up until the 26th May when she was ordered back to the Humber.

On 24th of April, Layton and Manchester, York and Birmingham along with the usual fleet of escorts left Rosyth loaded with stores and troops set sail for Norway on one of the resupply sorties. Early in the morning of the 26th Layton's ships came across a number of German armed trawlers disguised at Dutchmen. One minelayer hoisted the German flag and Birmingham sunk it. My uncle Bill Walls, who was also in the Royal Navy, told me only recently that the rule was that there was no rescue of men when the ship sunk was under 10,000 tons. He tells that my father said that for this reason the captain of Birmingham shut off his engines as the cruiser ploughed through the debris - so as not to diminish the sailors already meagre chances of survival.

Manchester and Birmingham remained in the area until the 26th of April. Birmingham then took part in the withdrawal of the British forces from central Norway late April and 1 May. Birmingham was bombed but not hit.

On the 9th May, Birmingham (with Janus, Hyperion, Hereward and Havock) were ordered to intercept two enemy forces thought to be operating near the Little Fisher Bank. Kelly (under the command of Lord Louis Mountbatten), Kimberley, Kandahar and Hostile were instructed to join them. It was during this "search and destroy" type operation that Kelly was torpedoed by an MTB being hit just under the bridge at 2235. During the next few hours a number of contacts were made with MTBs including one attack on Birmingham. Kelly was put under tow by Bulldog and with Birmingham and her destroyers she was escorted back to Scapa. The whole fleet was subject to air attack.

That night the German's invaded Holland and Belgium and Birmingham and most of the destroyers in company were told to steam immediately to Terschelling.

I understand that Birmingham might have operated a fair amount of the next 12 months in convoy escort duty which included at least one trip to South America. It is in this context that my Uncle Bill tells me that at some time Birmingham was in port in Buenos Aires. Both my father and his brother Alf were keen fans of that great crooner Bing Crosby. Apparently he was in town and after too many "jars" my father and uncle Alf decided that they would call on him in his hotel to offer their respects. They discovered his room and commenced banging on the door calling out to their hero to open up - they wanted to buy him a drink. According to my uncle Bill it became quite apparent that he had a woman in the room and he said some rather harsh words through the door. They chose to return to the ship rather than take on a rather angry Bing and the hotel management.

I have no further information concerning the operations of Birmingham although my father remained a member of the crew until 12 May 1941.

The certificate presented to my father for having crossed the equator (or the "line" as it was called) is dated 5th September 1939 - two days after war was declared. Obviously it should have been presented on the way out to China but for some reason it was done on the way home. On the Proclamation by good old King Neptune, my father has written the names of the ports that Birmingham had visited - Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, Amoy, Sharps Peak, Shanghai, Tsingtao, Wei-Hai-Wei, Cheefoo, Manila, Pedang, Kobi, Alexandria and Kulang Su. This is the passage of a young Sussex boy from Worthing who worked in a dairy to manhood.

Norway had to wait until the 8th May 1945 to be liberated.

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