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Chapter Three - MAKING READY FOR WAR, War at sea 1940-41

on to 4 - Convoy PQ17


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Two days after we had tied up at Aberdeen, we were sent home on fourteen days leave; the Gem was left in the hands of the repair gangs, and the one or two crew members who had to stay to keep an eye on things.

When I arrived home I suppose I felt rather like a returning hero of sorts, and enjoyed being made a fuss of by all and sundry. I was back home again for my first leave after some six months since my last one at Christmas 1939. This time I had come home after seeing quite a bit of action one way or another. On my first day home I was having tea with my parents and thinking how good it was to be at home with them again, when the alarm clock on the mantelpiece in the kitchen decided to go off. As it did so, my heart all but stopped beating. I felt myself go white, like a sheet, and before either of my parents could say a thing, I was out of my chair, through the door and into the back garden. Rather sheepishly I went back into the house when I realised where I was, feeling ridiculous, and apologised to both of them for startling them as I had done. After explaining my reason for dashing out as I had, they said that they understood. This little episode proved one thing to me - that my reactions had certainly got much quicker during the last few months and that the will to survive was still with me.

On this leave on our return from Norway, one of the first questions my mother asked me was, 'Is it right you were taken prisoner in Norway?' and when I said yes, she replied that she had known it was so; that about the second week in May, they were having a cup of tea before going to bed, when she suddenly said to my father, 'Our Sid has been taken prisoner'. He told her not to be silly, but how true her premonition had turned out to be. Did she in some way receive some of my thoughts during the time it was all happening, because I had thought about my home and all who were there, and whether I should see them again, when we were transfixed to the ground under the cross fire from the Germans and from the fishing boat? I've tried several times to reason this thing out but it just remains a mystery. I have read of similar things happening to other people, but I still find it very hard to accept.

Back at Aberdeen, I found that a number of changes had taken place. Skipper Scarlett had gone, and in his place was Chief Skipper Mullender. He was a short stocky man, as tough as they come; he was an ex-trawler skipper from Lowestoft, who had also been the skipper of a collier (a ship running coal) between Lowestoft and Methyl for a number of years before the war. This was brought about by the way in which the fishing industry had deteriorated in the nineteen thirties, resulting in so many fishermen being on the dole. We were to find later that he was a fair man and a very good skipper, quite unflappable, even under the most extreme and provocative circumstances. He was to become a sort of idol to me, and a great friend until he passed away in 1977. I would have sailed anywhere in the world with him at any time as I had all the confidence in the world in him. He had apparently been one of several brothers, and had suffered some serious illness as a child and did hardly any schooling as a result. His parents were told that he would not live. His father was a fisherman on a smack sailing out of Lowestoft, and 'Billy' had asked if he could go to sea with him. His father must have taken him out of compassion. Skipper Mullender told me that he was too weak and too ill to help himself; he just lay on the deck and that it seemed just a matter of time before his young life came to an end. But fortunately he and his father persevered, and after two or three trips, breathing in the strong salt sea air of the North Sea into his lungs, they suddenly realised that he was getting very much stronger. He eventually took up the sea as his life's work, taught himself to read and write and took examinations for first his bosun's ticket, then his mate's, and later his skipper's. I have never before or afterwards served under anyone like him.

The coxswain of the Gem, Chris Wilson, who was from my home town of Hull, had contracted an illness not long after we returned from our leave, and would not be coming back. I was called in to the wardroom and introduced to Skipper Mullender for the first time, and he told me that he could not get a replacement for the coxswain, and that he had been told to upgrade one of the crew to be acting coxswain until such time as a replacement could be sent onboard. He said that he had been through all the records and that he had decided that I was to be the one, as I had more actual sea time in than any of the others. When I mentioned that there was a leading seaman on board, he said that until he joined the Gem, the leading seaman had very little sea time in, and even less experience of the sea as he had been working as a diver on the lochs in Scotland. Of course I could not refuse the chance; I took it with both hands. I was told to move my gear into the berth vacated by the ex-coxswain. I could hardly believe it, a berth of my own. I sat in this, the then previously Holy of Holies and wondered why I should be so lucky.

My berth was at the foot of the wooden staircase leading down to the petty officers' quarters, just on the right as you reached the bottom. It had a single bunk with two blue draw curtains, and had a reading lamp fitted in to it. Underneath the bunk there were two good sized drawers, which could be pulled out to clear a seat locker which was covered in a blue leather, the same colour as the draw curtains. There was also in one corner a fitted wardrobe, and on the right as I walked in through the door, there was a mirror fixed onto the bulk head over the top of a desk, the lid of which lifted up to reveal a wash basin with hot and cold water taps. These did not always work properly, but this did not matter because just at the top of the staircase was a petty officers' bathroom and toilets and of course these I was now allowed to use. The whole of the cabin was lined out with a beautiful and well-polished wooden panelled mahogany lining.

My job as acting coxswain now consisted of everything to do with the running of the seamen's side of the ship under the new first lieutenant, Ordinary Skipper Jack Pooley, also of Lowestoft. He was built a bit on the small side, a thin, almost always worried looking man, easy to get on with, and he did eventually leave most of the organising and working of the ship to me; he only got on my back if there was anything special in the wind.

I found myself ordering all of the food, and doing all of the victualling, the issuing of the rum ration, making sure that the ship was kept clean at all times, at sea or in harbour, weather permitting of course; in fact I was doing all the things that a coxswain of a ship was supposed to do, and many others that he was not. I've heard that lots of strange things happened on other HM trawlers that had RNR officers in command, and ships with Wavy Navy Officers (RNVR). The majority who at the early part of the war had little or no authority of the sort required were I am told sticklers for naval protocol. Some seemed to think that trawlers were destroyers, manned throughout by three badge Killicks,. It's surprising how when some people get a bit of authority thrust upon them, take on the mantle of the Almighty, and it happens just the same in peace-time.

Personally I would rather be a happy man with moderate means, rather than have to struggle in the rat race of today. These people today don't realise the honesty of the comradeship as we knew it; it has gone by the board and such comradeship will never come back, ever. I suppose there are as good lads amongst these today, as there were amongst the RNVRs of our wartime days for since then I have found out that there were some jolly good ones, good fighters and damn good sailors, who became excellent officers; others, of which I am certain there were a minority, acted like God; yet whatever they were, or whatever they became, many gave their lives for their King and their country, and many of these have no known grave but the sea. Without them all, comradeship such as ours would not have survived.

Once the dockyard people had left the ship, the task was to get her back to looking like a minor war vessel again. The damage that had been done by that lone German aircraft while on our way back from Norway had been put right, a few small alterations had been made, and we found that we had lost our Oerlikon gun. It had been sent down to the south to do its duty in what was to become the Battle of Britain, though we did not realise this at the time. A lot of other trawlers lost armament that they had gained by one means or another. Our stock of high explosive shells for the four-inch gun was back to the normal amount. The twin Lewis which had been on top of the casing aft, had been taken away, and in its place was a new weapon, a Holman Projector, a steam-powered piece of equipment not unlike a bit of fall pipe that comes down from the guttering of a house to allow the rain to find its way to the drains.

We were to find out that this was all that it was fit for. Its crew was supposed to put down this pipe an ordinary hand grenade which nestled in a tin; the lever from the grenade came through a slot in the metal container and was held down by a pin in the safe position on the outside of the container. The drill was that when the crew were going to fire this 'thing', first they had to make quite certain that there was enough steam pressure on the gauge to project the grenade out of the pipe. They then took the pin out of the grenade, dropped the grenade still in its container down the spout of the pipe, banging their foot down on a pedal at the base of the pipe, and at the same time aiming the 'gun' at the target. If the target was a plane, the grenade was supposed to go off in the vicinity of the plane after parting company with the container as it left the mouth of the pipe. In theory I suppose that this was quite a legitimate description of its action if the steam pressure applied to the projector was correct; if it wasn't, the grenade and its container had a nasty habit of just managing to climb out of the end of the pipe, and dropping onto the deck where they separated, rolling about until they either exploded where they were, and fragmented amongst those of the crew who were panicking to throw them over the side, or in the sea out of harm's way if the crew had been successful in doing what they had set out to do.

Most ships' crews found as time passed by that the best use for the Holman Projector was for throwing potatoes or empty cans at their 'chummy ships' as they passed by them in a channel. To be used for the job for which it was really intended was thought to be more dangerous to those actually firing it than to the aircraft supposed to be at the receiving end. Eventually, I believe, these Holmans were taken off most if not all ships.

Before our leave from Aberdeen, the crew's bedding, bed covers, sheets and pillow cases, had been sent ashore to be cleaned and even repeated visits to the laundry did not get it back onboard by the time came for the ship to leave, and we had to sail without it. Our destination this time was on the west coast of Scotland, Tobermory, in the Sound of Mull. Tobermory was a training school under the command of a bewhiskered old commodore, who had no qualms about sending a whole ship's company back to their depots if they were not up to his expectations. None of us was looking forward to this visit, for even officers were not immune from his wrath and could be replaced. However there was no way that a ship could, once it had been ordered to report to the HMS Western Isles, get out of the visit unless of course the invasion of Britain was taking place; even then I'm not certain that it would have constituted an excuse.

We arrived in the Sound of Mull, during the course of an afternoon. I cannot remember now if there were any other ships at anchor when we arrived, apart from the old inter-island boat, the Western Isles, which was the headquarters of Commodore Stephenson. Everything seemed placid enough at the time, with no suggestion that it could, and did more often than not, turn into a hive of intense activity, with everyone feeling shattered and broken. We were preparing to drop anchor when the signal lamp began to flash from the base ship.

I was on the forecastle with Mr Pooley at this time, along with one or two seamen. The CO shouted from the wheelhouse that we were to shackle up to a buoy. None of us had ever done this before, even Mr Pooley, but the operation had to be carried out to the best of our ability. In the middle of it, I was ordered to go to the seamen's messdeck on the double, as the commodore was there and wanted to see me.

I dropped everything, and with my mind full of all sorts of thoughts as to what he could want to see me for, I shot down the ladder leading off the whale-back, and onto the deck, made my way quickly to the top of the companion way, and 'dropped' down the ladder. Here I saw that an inspection was taking place. Our CO was talking to the commodore, and as he saw me, motioned with his hand for me to come forward. The commodore turned towards me, so I came to attention and saluted him, 'You sent for me, Sir.' He looked me up and down, walked right around me, and then said, 'Who the bloody hell are you? I sent for the coxswain.'

I was dressed in fisherman's clothing, by now off white thick woolly fearnoughts, a mottled grey and white abb wool jersey, I had a red muffler around my neck and on my head an ordinary working man's flat cap. By the way that he was eyeing me, I thought ‘by hell, I'm for it now', and my heart dropped all the way down to the bottom of my fisherman's thigh boots. I stood waiting for the terrific blast that I was now expecting.

With his eyes staring right into mine, he said, 'Right then, coxswain, where is the bed linen for all the bunks on this mess deck?' Without taking his eyes off me, he listened as I explained. He heard me out without interruption and then said, 'At 0530 hours tomorrow morning, I want your ship's boat alongside the gangway of my vessel; you yourself will be in charge of it, and everyone will be in the rig of the day. I want to see the boat handled properly, as I shall be watching your approach from the head of the gangway, and if the operation is not carried out in the way that I think it should be, then heads will roll, and I do not care whose they are. So don't forget you will arrive alongside my ship at precisely 0530, not 0528, or 0532, do you understand? Now, then, coxswain, how many sets of bed linen do you require?'

Of course I felt uptight about this, but fortunately I knew just how many sets of bed linen that I required, so I replied, 'Yes, Sir, I understand. 0530 at your gangway, and I shall require 52 sets, that's one for each bunk, and one spare set for each'. At that he turned away and gave a chuckle, as he said, 'It's a good thing that you asked for spare sets as well, coxswain. They will be ready for you to collect in the morning.' He went up the ladder and onto the upper deck with the CO, and I breathed a sigh of relief and lit a cigarette to steady my nerves. We saw him often during our ten days' stay there, but I never came into contact with him again on a personal level.

From that moment on, every one of the crew wore rig of the day - he was not going to catch me out again if I could help it.

At 0500 hours the next morning the boat's crew and myself, stood on the deck along with Skipper Mullender and the 1st Lieutenant, waiting for the time to get into the boat, and pull over to the HMS Western Isles. The distance between the two ships had been seriously calculated, and the seamen had been told what to do to make it look good, for none of us had ever practised the art of tossing the oars upright in a boat when approaching another ship in the proper Purser manner. We had seen it done, but now was our chance to have a go at doing it properly the first time. We checked our watches, and with a shout of good luck, the skipper and Mr Pooley retired to the top bridge as we pulled away from the ship's side, to watch the proceedings, hoping that nothing would go wrong. As it turned out things went well, I'm not going to say that we were perfect, but we got ourselves into a position for the last few yards' run in to the gangway ladder; the oars were raised to my order, out of the water, and with just enough way we touched at the correct time.

As soon as we did so the sentry challenged us, and I stated the purpose for our being there, and was told to come onboard, the boat was made fast, and I ran up to the top of the gangway, turned aft and saluted. There was no officer to be seen about, but that did not mean that there was not one there. At the top of the gangway lay several bundles for which I signed after first checking them over. There were fifty-two sets of bedding as the commodore had promised, and we got them into the boat and cast off, once again going through the right drill as we moved off. By this time in spite of the sharp cold morning air, I was sweating profusely as were the other lads in the boat. Theirs was brought on by rowing the boat, but mine was from worry as to whether we should be called back to the Western Isles for something that I had forgotten to do, or which had not pleased the commodore or his duty officer, neither of whom I had caught a glimpse of the whole time, though I have no doubt that they were keeping their eyes on us throughout the trip there and back. Nevertheless we arrived back at the Gem with no sign of any signals, much to our relief.

Our training programme got under way: without any warning the Commodore would come alongside in his boat and step aboard, have a little walk up and down the deck, and suddenly say, 'That buoy over there! It's a U-boat surfacing after being depth charged, she's going to scuttle herself. What are you going to do about it?' There was a panic then to get a small boat away with a crew in it armed to the teeth with rifles and revolvers, and a pocket full of potatoes for use as hand grenades. Those in the boat along with the First Lieutenant at the helm had to pull quickly to the buoy that he had indicated as being the U-boat, Mr Pooley, the Jimmy, and one of the men had then to jump onto the buoy, pretend to lift up the hatch to the conning tower and throw down grenades to immobilise the U-boat crew and stop them scuttling the boat. After much fiendish shouting and not a little gymnastics, they would then pull back to the Gem, only to be told that they were all dead and what a bloody shambles it had been; the sub was still going to scuttle, and someone had to go and stop it, and as they were all dead and had to stay where they were, others had to go in their place to see what they could do.

Guns crews and depth charge gangs had to go through their drill time after time, discharging and reloading the depth charge throwers. This was a back-breaking job, with three-hundred pounds of amatol in each charge having to be hoisted time and time again back into the thrower day after day, until the gunnery officer from the Western Isles who had been timing them with a stopwatch, was satisfied with their timing.

Mock fires were fought, aircraft had to be repelled, so had boarders as they tried to get on deck to take the ship over; on occasions several things were timed to happen at once. Air attack, U-boat on the verge of surfacing, fire somewhere below or under the whale-back, it would be all hell let loose, and woe betide any slack attempts at putting things right. During these battles, my action station was as always in the wheel house, steering the ship and answering orders from the top bridge, so while I was up there I managed to keep out of the most hectic situations that cropped up. My main concern was whether my books were in good order; there was a crew list to keep up to date, account books. The book in which I kept the tally of Grog issued each day and what stocks were still down in the spirit room was the most important; it had to be spot on, neither too much nor too little of the rum left in the gallon jars down there. Either way it was a crime, and a serious one at that. I think that it was the chief writer who came into my cabin to check up on my ,work, but luckily apart from one or two minor things, I was OK, and ,was in fact given a few good tips to make the keeping of books and records much easier.

There were many times at night as well as during the day, when we had to drop our mooring buoy and put out into the submarine exercise area between Tyree and Iona. Then the Asdic operators got their chance to find a real live submarine. Even though it was only an exercise, and the crews in the submarines were learning also, it was almost like the real thing, except that for safety's sake those of us on the bridge could see where the sub was because they used to tow small metal floats called 'buffs', to indicate their position. The Asdic operators could not see these and had to rely on picking up the submarine on their sets, which sent out a beam of sound. If it happened to hit the sub, then it would rebound back to the set where the operators had to decide quickly whether it was the sub or a shoal of fish or even a tide rip. If it was the sub then they had to make an 'attack', guiding the ship towards the target. The officer on the bridge would then let the CO know if it could be confirmed as a hit, and if so we would drop a small five pound charge over the side to let the submarine know that she had been attacked. I don't think that I remember our reaching that stage, but we may well have done so. Once this exercise was finished, it was back to Tobermoray and the task of mooring up to the buoy again, unless old 'Fiery Whiskers' had something else for us to tackle, such as fireworks and flares being thrown aboard while you were tying up to the buoy; this was presumably to indicate that we were now being attacked by some invisible E-boat. Like the submarine exercise we had to keep going until the attack was properly repulsed, or until the 'enemy' got fed up and went home to tea.

It certainly did us no harm, but quite a lot of good; we were not so slow, and not so complacent, and we were much more aware of what the enemy could and did do. Our reactions were very much quicker, and this was what it had all been about. I think that most of us realised this and had enjoyed it for all the lack of sleep, and the hard work that we'd had to put up with. But even so, when the time came for us to leave, and we realised that we had come through it all unscathed, the entire crew including the officers too took a deep breath of relief and were pleased that no one had been sent back to base.

And so we left Commodore Sir Gilbert Stephenson, the HMS Western Isles and the Sound of Mull behind. Ever since my meeting with him on that first day, I had felt a great respect for the commodore. The way in which he spoke to me in spite of how I was dressed in the garb of a deep sea fisherman amazed me greatly, but at that time I was rather young, and tended to be overawed at the sight of any officer with straight rings around his arm, and had certainly not been in a position to speak to another officer of his rank in the Royal Navy. His understanding of us ex-fishermen must have been first class; he knew what sort of men we had been, and he also saw the sort of men that we could turn out to be given half a chance. He sorted the wheat from the chaff, and the wheat respected him for it. Since I became a member of the Royal Naval Patrol Service some years ago, I have spoken to captains and commanders, and one vice admiral who were still on the active list, and it has been an honour to have found out at least that they themselves, had some respect and not a little admiration, for the way the trawlermen conducted themselves during those hostile years and afterwards, when the minefields had to be cleared to make the seas safe for the passage of all vessels, even when peace arrived.

Once we were released from the confines of Tobermory, the sailing orders were for us to make our way to Belfast, where we arrived at the beginning of August 1940. We were based on HMS Caroline, and joined the 27th A/S Group if I remember correctly. From Belfast we were sent on a variety of jobs, patrols, convoy escort and the like. We did several stints to Iceland and the Faeroes to patrol the seas around these islands, and often we found ourselves on our own in the Denmark Straits. This was a weird place, as those who have been there will agree, especially if you had no chummy ship to keep you company. There was nothing to see for days on end but the wide unfriendly ocean, that stretch of dangerous water between Greenland and Iceland.

The sea could be calm for a day or two, and then within minutes it could change to mountains of aquatic fury, driven on by hurricane force winds, bringing with them snow and sleet from the mountains and plateaux of ice-covered Greenland. At certain times of the year huge icebergs would drift down, shrouded in thick fogs after starting their journeys by breaking off from some remote glacier. You got so that you could smell them if the ship was down wind of them, but they never failed to excite me or strike me with awe at their majestic size, and sometimes at their breathtaking beauty. One always had to be on the alert looking out for them as they could be very dangerous in the darkness of the night, and of course more so in fog. We carried no radar at the time I was a member of her crew. It was possible to get an echo from one on the Asdic, but in fog one had to be certain what the echo was from as the skipper could not send the vessel charging forward thinking the object returning the echo was a U-boat, when in fact it could be an iceberg, for the bottom could be ripped out of the vessel in no time. Of course these icebergs were not the only unfriendly things in these waters, and being on a small trawler, even though she was one of the largest in the country at six hundred gross tonnes, alone for days on end, did not do the nerves of those onboard very much good whatsoever.

To illustrate my point, on one such occasion during May 1941, the German warships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen left Norwegian waters to break out into the Atlantic to do what damage they could to the ships in the convoys, which were crossing from the new world to the old and vice versa. At about the same time the Northern Gem was acting as an escort and rescue vessel on an outward bound convoy. It was the practice at this stage of the war for the escorts to stay with their convoy of merchant ships until the halfway stage was reached, including convoys leaving America, Halifax or St John's Newfoundland, and bound for England. At a prearranged spot, the escorts handed their charges over to each other, in other words changing convoys. The outward-bound escort then became the inward one making its way back to England and once this had been accomplished we felt that at least one part of the job had been done, and that this second part was taking us nearer and nearer to our home base.

On this particular trip, we on the outward bound leg had been having a quiet time for once, but the buzzes that came down from the bridge and wireless room told us that the convoys we were to exchange with were having a tough old time and that many ships had been sunk by repeated attacks from U-boats. It was going around the ship that if it kept up in this way there would soon be no convoy for us to take back to the UK. The weather in their part of the Atlantic had been pretty bad, though not severe enough to keep the U-boats down, but it was said to be getting better. Some time later we were ordered to leave our convoy and make for the last reported area of the sinkings, to make a thorough search for any survivors who might still be around in small boats or rafts. It was a forlorn hope for one ship searching in this way, but nevertheless it had to be carried out to the best of our ability. The orders were that we should make our way back along the convoy's estimated course, and make square searches as we went along. This we learned would take us the biggest part of the way across the Denmark Straits all on our own, just one lone armed ex-fishing trawler, now a very small part of the Royal Navy, the crew of which were not relishing the next few days by any means. But we knew that it had to be done, and that many men were probably fighting for their lives somewhere out there in those wild wastes of water.

On the evening of the first day's search, as it got darker and the Northern Lights began to spin their web of beauty across the Arctic skies to the north of us and on our starboard side, we saw ahead of us, and in the distance, the glow of a huge and fierce fire reflected on the clouds. The skipper ordered the slight alteration of the Gem's course which put the ship's head pointing straight towards it. Down below in the bowels of the Gem, the chief engineer and his staff of firemen were banging coal onto the fires and the engines began to pile on the revs. We could feel her shaking as if with excitement, as if she herself was trying to get us to the scene as soon as was possible.

Even moving along at twelve or thirteen knots was pushing it for the old girl, and it was almost dawn before we saw the cause of the blaze at a distance of some six or seven miles ahead of us. It was easy to make out that the fire was on a tanker, and even though the flames appeared to be dying down a bit as we closed up to it and the smoke was being blown away over her stern, we could see that her hull was red hot, white hot in some places, that she had been ravaged by the fire from end to end and that there would be no hope of finding anyone alive onboard her.

Skipper Mullender decided that he would make a wide sweep in a big circle right around the burning vessel to see if there were any U-boats waiting in the area, waiting to put a torpedo into any unsuspecting ship that came along, for this is what they used to do. We were all wide awake; there had been no need to call all hands on deck, for they had been at their action stations for most of the night cat napping where they stood and keeping a good look-out by spelling each other. I myself had taken over the wheel and throughout the night had spelled it with Tim Coleman, until we got close to the casualty; then I took over and stayed at the wheel for some considerable time, which helped to keep me from thinking too much about what could happen in a situation like the one we were in now.

Two wide Asdic sweeps were made of the surrounding area, with no sign of either the enemy or small boats or rafts with survivors in, so we ran in to have a look at the derelict and burning tanker, ostensibly to see if we could put a name to her. But no name could be seen; all the paint had been burnt off her and she was still red and white hot. As the ship rolled in the swell, and the hot glowing plates touched the water, we could hear them 'hissing' and see the steam rising from them. There was a hole in her port side, just forward of amidships that two double decker buses could have been driven through side by side. It amazed us that she was still afloat, and our thoughts were that the crew must have all died instantly in the first blast of the scorching heat created by the explosion of the torpedo. They must have been incinerated without having a chance to get away in their small boats and rafts. What a horrible death this must have been, yet a much quicker end than the lingering one of being adrift in open boats or rafts for days on end, dying one by one through the cold, hunger, thirst or through the loneliness of it all. I'm pretty sure that none of us in the Gem looking at that sight would have swapped places with a tanker man. In our opinion they must have had some guts to sign on for the long and ever dangerous trips that they made. I have seen tankers carrying aviation fuel, when they were hit by a tin fish, just vanish in a puff of smoke, one minute a ship moving along in station with others, then an open space with just a pall of smoke drifting away over the sea.

The skipper was satisfied that we would learn no more about her, and said that we would carry out a further search for survivors, though he thought that it was unlikely that we should find any. He used the burning tanker as a fix, and we carried out our search by going in ever widening circles around her. This we did during the whole of that day, until we could see her no more and until darkness came upon us again.

The following dawn broke out over a dull grey sea. It looked greasy as we used to say. There was a long heavy rolling swell, of the type that if we had another ship in our company, would appear to swallow one of us up, while the other looked as if it were about to be marooned on the top of a moving mountain. This was the morning of 24th May 1941, and unknown to the ship's company, throughout the night heading towards us at a speed of some thirty or more knots, were those two big ships of the German navy.

The wireless operator had known but had been told by the skipper not to spread it around. Then after breakfast he let it be known that the pride of the British Navy, the HMS Hood, while chasing the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen through the Denmark Straits had been sunk, and that from reports coming in, they were being shadowed by other ships of the fleet. I doubt if any of us would have slept so soundly if we had known of this. I'm certain that I would not have done, but like the others when darkness had come and many of us were allowed to go below, I was finding it very difficult to keep my eyes open owing to staring at the compass card for most of the day, and the horizon through binoculars for the rest of it on the lookout for some sign of survivors.

I slept fully dressed as always when at sea, with the old blown up sausage-shaped lifebelt fastened around my waist, and in my pockets packets of cigarettes and a few bars of chocolate. If we had to abandon and we got the chance to get away, these things would have come in handy. I think we all knew that if a tin fish were to hit us from some U-boat short of a bigger target, not many of us would stand a cat in hell's chance of getting away from the ship. Those who were caught down below would stay there and go with her on her last trip, that's for sure. However on this 24th May 1941, we had the news broken to us about the loss of the Hood and that these two ships were heading at least in our general direction. From what the wireless operator passed on to us in the wheel house, the Admiralty were continually sending out coded signals as to the course and position of the Bismarck, and this was why we were altering course every so often.

I was ordered to take the leading seaman with me and to check over the two small boats and the rafts, put extra blankets and water in them, as well as some more food and a jar of rum. My thoughts at this point were that if we were going to lose the Gem, then it was no good losing all of the crew with her. Surely some of us would have the chance to survive even if we saw the Bismarck in the distance though I believed that a near miss from one of her salvos would have turned the Gem over.

It was passed down from the top bridge that a signal had been sent to the Gem from HMS Suffolk (above - Navy Photos), ordering the Northern Gem to close the Bismarck on such and such a course, and to attack her at all costs. In spite of all that the signal implied we all burst out laughing; to us it was like setting a push bike against a Tiger tank. We would not have got close enough to let off our vintage four inch gun at such a big target. The mind boggles at the thought and yet it helped to cheer us up no end that day.

We talked of the loss of the mighty Hood, and the possibility that our end could be near. I think we all made our peace with our Maker in our own individual ways. The men of the sea are a religious lot regardless of what they say in public. I have myself thanked God many times while at sea both in peace and war, and believe that a prayer at the right time of stress has brought me through many of the frightening incidents that I have been involved in. I am not a deeply religious man, but faith was all that we had to hang on to, and on this occasion, I truly believe that it brought us and the old Gem through once again, because we were told later that the Bismarck that day passed some fifty or so miles away to the east of us. Soon after this we were ordered to make our lonely way back to Belfast. Apart from the burning tanker, we did not see another vessel from leaving the outward bound convoy, until we got near to the Irish Coast. We had been at sea for eighteen days, twelve of these being spent all on our own.

This had been a trip when nerves and imagination played a big part, and strong wills had been needed to conquer the fear that was akin to us all if the truth was spoken. Not only on this trip but on many others during my four years on the Gem, I have lain on the bunk in my cabin, and thought to myself as I heard the water gurgling past the ship's plates, what would I think or feel for the few seconds or so, before the explosion of a torpedo that came through the ship's side and into my berth. Would it leap in and fall across me before it went bang? I would probably have died of fright instantly. Then there were the mines, which were no respecter of ships or persons; they either waited for you to come along, in 'fields' like balloons filled with gas, which floated just below the surface of the sea and were packed with explosives, waiting for your ship to run onto them with some part of the hull, or they just floated partly submerged after breaking from their moorings. If there was a bit of a lop on the surface of the sea they were difficult to notice, and many ships were sunk by floating mines as well as the moored ones.

These thoughts were not always on one's mind, but were hidden away in the back somewhere, and only surfaced when you were tired and had been at sea for a long time. After two or three weeks out there you got to thinking that your luck could not last much longer. Being on watch at night time was a bad period, for you often saw things that were not there, particularly if the ship was on a lone patrol.

During 1941, we were to do many patrols, and go on quite a few convoy escort jobs both up to Iceland and out into the wide open spaces of the Atlantic. The weather in the North Atlantic could be anything, from being like a mill pond, to a savage and ruthless killer, with huge mountainous seas, flinging ships all over the place with no regard for their size. They could overwhelm a large and well founded merchant ship suddenly without warning, and without any other vessel in the vicinity being aware of what had taken place. Even if the calamity had been seen, nothing much could have been done because every vessel in that area would be fighting desperately for its own survival. If the weather moderated in reasonable time then one rescue vessel might be sent back to see if they could locate any of the crew, but in these sorts of cases more often than not, nothing at all would be found, not even a bit of floating wreckage. Yes the sea could be at times more dangerous than the U-boats and the mines, it could be tranquil and also treacherous - a proper Jekyll and Hyde.

Hurricanes seemed to be abundant and prolific, especially in the middle three years of the war, 41, 42, and 43, with howling winds and huge rolling seas seemingly miles high accompanied by frequent rain hail and snow which felt like bullets as it hit you. On watch one was constantly wet through even though you had on several layers of clothing, on the top of which you had oilskins and sea boots and a sou’wester on your head, with a towel wrapped around your neck to keep out the water and stop it from getting down to the inner layers. Coming off watch proved to be just as bad. Trying to get your wet clothing off while being thrown from one side of the cabin or mess deck to the other was a nightmare at times, and on many of these occasions you just could not be bothered to try. You just turned in to your bunk as you were, oilskins and all.

When you got into your bunk fully dressed or not, it was sometimes difficult to stay in it let alone get off to sleep; it was a fight to wedge yourself in by jamming the knees up on one side and the back against the other. When it came to sleep, I was more fortunate than most due to my previous years of experience in this type of ship. Provided I was tired enough I could get all the sleep that I required to recharge my batteries. Being somewhat used to the unpredictable motions of the vessel helped, but even so it did not make the situation any more pleasant.

On the other hand of course the weather could be very beautiful, the sea calm and apart from the obvious dangers of the war, it could be a grand way of life. I suppose I have always loved the sea in my own way, and I still do to this day, getting out in a yacht or an inshore fishing boat for the weekend with some friends.

Of course we had a light side to our lives, like the time when a few of us went ashore at Belfast, to celebrate some now long forgotten event. We'd all had a few too many to drink, and eventually staggered onboard, and it was some time later when a wet and bedraggled Charlie Keen came down to the mess deck. No one had missed him as he slipped into the space between the ship's side, and the wall of the dock and into the water. When the rest of us had gone below and it was quiet on the deck, the sentry on the dock side, walking up and down on his beat, heard Charlie shouting his head off down there in the darkness. He got some help from passers by and got the 'drowning' man onto the deck, cursing and swearing. Charlie had apparently when he fell into the water, grabbed hold of a wire that was hung down over the side of the Gem, and attempted to climb up it. All that happened was that the more he tried, the more wire was coming over the side; this was because it was coming off a reel fixed to the casing of the Gem, under the starboard small boat. You can imagine what happened when everyone heard about this, they all fell about laughing. At least he had sobered up a lot quicker than the rest of us, and later when he realised the predicament that he had been in and saw it in the light that we had seen it in, he had a good laugh himself, but of course with the Gem being the inside ship of a trot of four, it could have had a tragic end; he could have been crushed between the dockside and the ship very easily, and if it had not have been for the sentry no one else would have been aware of his very dangerous position. Charlie Keen is still alive and kicking to this day, and I hope that if he reads this he will remember and have a good laugh over it again.

The year of 1941 drew to a close, and we were told that the Northern Gem on completion of this convoy that we were now escorting would go into the dry dock at Belfast for a boiler clean and a refit, and that all hands were to go on leave. This cheered us up no end, we had been at sea on and off for the whole year, with just the odd few days in either Belfast or Londonderry between each voyage. Nerves tended to get strained a bit after such long periods, because by being at sea you were sort of in the front line during the whole of the time, the enemies being not only the U-boats and the mines, but also the vast North Atlantic and its variable weather and moods.

And so we went on leave, and when we returned to Belfast, we were put in digs with various families in the town. After a month it was time for us to pack our bags and leave these good people to return to the ship in order to get back into the fray once more, and I must say that it was very hard to say goodbye to people who were almost in tears at the thought of our near departure, so close had we all become.

Several times during the last month I had been down to the ship to have a look around to see what was happening to the old girl. At first it was difficult to make out just what was going on - all the men who have in the past seen a ship being pulled to pieces during a major refit will understand. It was a shambles of machinery, cables and wires, and parts of the ship were laid about all over the decks and on the quayside, where also lay the two small boats and their davits just where they had been dropped. The inside of her looked like an empty shell, apart from lots of junk piled up here and there; it was enough to make one weep with despair when you thought back as to how she looked before she was handed over to all these perfect strangers who were clambering about, chipping and painting, hammering and cutting pieces out of her here and there with oxy-acetylene torches. It always has been and always will be a mystery to me as to how they managed to stick all the bits back together again to create order out of such chaos, but they did, and this time was no exception as we were to find out.


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