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AND SO ...

4. TO WAR IN HMS REPULSE ..... including Scapa Flow, Loch Ewe, North Sea patrols and trans-Atlantic troop convoy

on to Chapter 5. "Coastal Forces Beckon"


Towards the end of the autumn 1938 cruise the H.M.S. Revenge returned to Devonport, where we learned that she was going to be swopped with the H.M.S. Repulse at Portsmouth after Christmas leave and that most of each of the ships’ companies would be involved in the changeover.


One would imagine that the transfers would involve taking a ship to her new port and bringing back the other. But no; in January 1939, the ship’s company of the Revenge together with kit entrained at the Naval Barracks Station and journeyed to Portsmouth to embark in the Repulse.

The traditional meal en route was a typical pusser’s bag meal, consisting of something like a bread roll and cheese, a hard-boiled egg and an apple; nothing to drink, and restaurant cars on trains were unheard of. Being a troop train, it did not stop at any station long enough for a dash to a buffet for a cuppa, so we went thirsty. When we arrived in the dockyard we discovered the Repulse was in dry dock, being extensively overhauled and a general moan went up, because it meant the dockyard ‘heads’ or toilets would have to be used. In the Navy that is one discomfort which can well be done without. It meant having to go out of the ship every morning for ablutions and visit the dockyard heads for every call of nature.

HMS Repulse prewar. Later lost off Malaya with HMS Prince of Wales, December 1941

We were allocated our messes and jobs; my part of the ship was known as the D.B. Party. D.B. stands for ‘Double Bottoms’, which meant I was in the work party responsible for furnace fuel supplies to the boiler rooms. As the Repulse had forty two boilers, each with a furnace, the D.B. party would be fully occupied when the ship was steaming. Once settled in the mess, kit locker numbers were given out, and probably most important was the disposition of the hammock hooks. With kits stowed and hammocks stacked, the next task was to prepare the mess for the first meal. As usual the messes were ship-side: that is one end of the table attached to the hull, with stools each side, long enough to seat a half of the mess members. In the Revenge the stools were made of plain wood and accordingly, like those in the training division, were scrubbed white every morning. Surprise, surprise, our mess stools were covered in white rubber, providing a somewhat softer seat. The old three-badgers amongst us were heard to comment that the navy was becoming soft: "Don’t know what the Andrew is coming to."

We subsequently learned we were to become "King’s Sailors", and that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were to visit Canada that summer and would travel in the Repulse.

My first job in the Repulse was in the fuel oil tanks, squeegeeing the sides of the tanks to remove oil and bucketing this residue to already clean tanks. As you can well imagine, this work was messy and our dinners were brought to us to be eaten on the tops of the tanks; we had a half an hour for this and work ceased at 3 p.m., which allowed us to use the Dockyard wash place before the remainder of the ship’s company. The washing of underwear and overalls each day was simple enough; the problem was to dry them. January in a Portsmouth Dockyard did not present many dry days for clothing to be hung in the air. Life in the early months of the year was grim, to say the least. I could only look forward to a long weekend of liberty, which occured once a month, when on Friday evening I could travel on a coach to Devonport Barracks and be back outside at 2 a.m. on Monday morning for the return to Pompey. The coach was known as the ‘Pash Bus’ (short for Passion) and cost fifteen shillings. Travelling on a Friday evening would result in plenty of banter amongst the liberty men; going back on the early Monday morning would hardly generate a "Good Morning".

The official card issued to all members of the crew in May 1939, when it was planned that HMS Repulse would carry the King and Queen on their official tour to Canada and the USA

The refit progressed steadily and after completion of cleaning of the fuel tanks my next job was the supply of lead paste for the jointing of the underwater valves to the internal hull. With a small handcart I would journey to a Naval Store and collect hundredweight drums of white lead paste together with packets of red lead powder, and then in the engineers’ workshop mix these ingredients into a pink-coloured paste, ready for use when required. Doesn’t seem very thrilling, does it? But once the job of replacing the valve boxes began, those drums of paste were soon empty and eventually had to be delivered by van in order to keep up with demand. At last the external hull refit was completed and the dry dock was flooded. The Repulse was floating once again. When all the internal connections were found to be watertight the ship was manoeuvred out of the dock and moved round to Farewell Jetty. We were at last self-contained and I no longer had to run to the Dockyard heads wearing an oilskin coat early in the morning, when it was pouring with rain and nature would have its way! Amongst members of the Andrew, Farewell Jetty is a well-known part of Portsmouth Dockyard, for it was from here that many warships sailed to all the oceans for very long durations. Whilst at the Jetty the ship took stores onboard, was fuelled and, with steam being raised, life inboard became more comfortable.

As in the Revenge, there was little on board the Repulse in the way of entertainment on the messdecks in the dog watches. One did one’s dhobeying, wrote letters, read, or sometimes played or watched the national game of Ludo, known in the Navy as ‘Uckers’. This was played by teams with skill, vitriolic exclamations and plenty of advice from observers. Ucker boards were made of large pieces of canvas, painted with the necessary markings. Chippy made a large dice of wood and a bucket became the implement for shaking the dice. When matches occured between various departments, tension could become high. In the hilarity a thrower would be fanned by a supporter, a brow mopped with a damp cloth and onlookers would chant: "Gilly, gilly for a six". To achieve two pieces of the same colour on a square was called a ‘blob’. One endeavoured to ‘blob up’ because it held up all the opposing team’s counters and only by shaking a six could a ‘blob’ be removed. Skill and strategy brought the playing of this game to an art, and it often went on for hours. More sedate was the game of Mah-Jong, played chiefly by the old China hands, whilst bridge, whist and cribbage were also means of entertainment, but dependant upon the demands of watchkeeping. Being based at Portsmouth, I was able to follow Portsmouth Football Club and remember being on the steps of Portsmouth Guildhall when the victorious team returned from Wembley with the F.A. Cup.

So sea trials in the Repulse continued, working up to the day when the King and Queen would embark for the journey to Canada. The paintwork on the messdecks had been finished in white enamel which reflected a white light around each mess, and kit musters became more regular. All leading up to the day which never took place! Due to the European situation, where Adolf Hitler was flexing his muscles, it was decided that the Repulse could not be spared as a royal yacht. Their Majesties would take passage to Canada in a liner and the Repulse would become the escort half way across the Atlantic Ocean. So much for the glamour of becoming a royal yacht! We didn’t go to Canada then; we journeyed so far and then turned back to concentrate on the more serious drills in preparation for the probabilities of war.

Early that summer in 1939 the Repulse went to her home port of Devonport, where fourteen days summer leave was given. H.M.S. Norfolk had returned to Devonport at the end of her foreign service commission, so all preparations were under way for Mabel’s sister, Lily, to be married to Gilbert Kime. By now, Mabel had become a full time member of the Civil Defence and had trained to be an Air Raid Warden, necessitating that she be on duty at staggered hours. The preparations for Lily’s wedding proceeded, taking top priority. The date had been fixed for a certain Sunday in July. What a dead loss that day was! The powers that be decided that the Repulse would sail that morning, and so I missed the wedding. That weekend would have been my turn for a long weekend leave. I had consolation in a letter from Mabel, learning that the family had been on Plymouth Hoe to see the ship sail. So on that Saturday afternoon, instead of attending the wedding, I was busy transferring fuel oil.

Again our destination was Scapa Flow, the nearest anchorage to the North Sea, and here in the Repulse we waited. Communications between Prime Minister Chamberlain and the Fuehrer of Germany, Adolph Hitler, had been long and frequent and doubtless your knowledge of history will remind you what it was about. From Scapa Flow the warships had been on exercises into the North Sea, carrying out shoots from the large guns and generally working up in preparation for war. Then on Sunday 3rd September at 11a.m., we all heard the Prime Minister speak the memorable words: "And so, this country is at war with Germany." I know I was a member of the armed forces, but I joined the Navy with the intention of improving my prospects and seeing something of the world. I confess that Chamberlain’s words sent a shiver down my spine; then the Action Stations alarm was sounded, which brought the whole drama into reality. Later, in discussion with other members of the mess deck, several of them admitted they had experienced feelings similar to mine. There it was, and we were committed. At our last visit to Devonport, radio speakers had been fitted on each mess deck so we were able to hear the news broadcasts each evening. Because the invasion of Poland was the cause of us being at war, we had a daily bulletin, aptly called "Up The Pole", printed and displayed on notice boards.

A moment of relaxation on HMS Repulse in Scapa Flow, in the far off Orkney Islands just after the declaration of war, September 1939

Together with other capital warships and protected by destroyers, we often carried out sweeps into the North Sea, but saw no action. Then at last we visited Canada - Halifax, Nova Scotia to be precise. With an aircraft carrier and destroyers, we escorted a convoy of liners across the Atlantic and berthed in Halifax, at the Irving Oil Jetty. Here we were to wait until the first contingent of Canadian soldiers was embarked for the journey to Liverpool. Shore leave was granted and, once on shore, we found hundreds of private cars, their owners queueing to take us into town and into their homes. It was in Halifax that I had my first taste of clam chowder, wonderful stuff, and my first experience of their coffee, which was drunk out of thick white china mugs. When going ashore one afternoon, the ship’s P.T.I. stopped me and gave me money to buy a puncture outfit for repairing footballs. I trudged around Halifax shops but nowhere could I find puncture outfits. It wasn’t until we were on the way back to U.K. that I discovered I should have been asking for a vulcanising kit! We sailed in convoy from Halifax, escorting several troopships containing the contingent of Canadian troops and stores, a screen of destroyers around us and planes from the aircraft carrier ranging far and wide as the eyes of the convoy.

We struck some rough weather on that trip; the destroyers were rising on and disappearing into the troughs of the waves. One must read stories of lives in destroyers in Atlantic gales to understand the atmosphere and conditions in those times. There is a photograph (below) of the Repulse hanging on the wall in our breakfast room, taken from the aircraft carrier, showing the ship in one of those gales. The bow is shipping huge waves and the quarter-deck and stern are completely hidden as though that part of the 42,000 ton warship is underwater. There were two steel breakwaters on the fo’csle to assist in breaking the fury of the sea, and when calmer weather appeared it was discovered that both of them had been washed away.

The convoy reached Liverpool safely and the Repulse had to have new fo’csle break-waters fitted, so we had the opportunity to go ashore. Going ashore? Yes, but this was a completely new experience, for it was our first walk ashore in a black-out. There was no street lighting; motor car headlights had the brilliance of one candlepower, and the Johnny with the torch was worth his weight in gold. He decided where we would go and we followed, tethered to one another by hanging onto the collar of the man in front. Where we went, I don’t know; how we managed to return to the ship, I don’t know; suffice to say that we did. There were some comical yarns going around the mess-decks during the next few days, the main one being about those who said "Sorry" each time they bumped into a lamp post.

With the repairs completed the ship was ready to leave Liverpool, but not before a number of experienced officers and men left us to help boost knowledge in other ships and some to attend schools before advancement. These places were taken by H.O.’s - Hostilities Only people, called up for war service. I subsequently learned that one of those R.N.V.R. sub-lieutenants was Frank Johnson, who would later be the Headmaster at my children’s primary school. The Engine Room Department received its quota of replacements in the form of H.O. Second Class stokers, who had received a minimum time of square-bashing and arrived on board, bewildered and vaccinated. One of them was allocated to our mess and arrived, lugging his kit, with a huge piano-accordian in its case. His surname was Ward, so was automatically nicknamed Sharkey. He could literally make that squeeze-box talk, so he was a valued member. One tea-time we were issued with tiny tins of meat paste and fish paste and Jos Spence, who was our Mess’s Leading Stoker, called out to Sharkey, who was sitting in his junior place at the mess table, "Sharkey, slide me up a tin of meat paste." Sharkey duly grabbed a tin and sent it on its way up the table. "No," said Jos, "I said a tin of meat paste, not fish paste." So Sharkey duly slid another tin of paste to Jos who said, "I said meat paste, can’t you bloody well read?" And Sharkey very calmly answered, "No". So we discovered that this lad could play any tune on a piano-accordian but he could not read. We soon took him in hand with reading lessons.

HMS Repulse in rough weather somewhere in the North Sea, but earlier in August 1939

Once again we steamed to Scapa Flow and swung around a buoy in company with other battleships. There was a number of heavily-gunned ships and some aircraft carriers moored with us. From a distance these ships looked vaguely familiar and yet not really recognisable. They turned out to be old merchant ships reconstructed to look like warships and carriers, lying at anchor to fool the Luftwaffe when they flew over the Flow taking pictures. Most of the superstructure on these ships consisted of wood and painted canvas, so after a heavy gale any damage had to be quickly rectified. Amongst us these ships were called Churchill’s Fleet. Prime Minister Chamberlain had resigned and Winston Churchill had replaced him.

Life aboard Repulse became very monotonous; there seemed to be the same routine day after day, geared to the eventuality of putting to sea, which didn’t happen very often. With the outbreak of hostilities, classes for advancement in the Engine Room Department ceased. This seemed ridiculous when casualties in action would result in replacements being needed. Because of this I began to go to various parts of the department in the evenings to work with and learn from the watchkeepers of the auxiliary machinery. To me, the most complex was the evaporating and distilling plants, where sea water was changed into distilled water - essential for creating steam in the boilers. A shout such as "The evaps are on the blink" or "There’s a cloud in the evaps" would cause consternation and the evaps maintenance ‘bod’ would scurry away down, down, down innumerable ladders to reach the compartment and rectify the defect. You can understand the importance of the evaps, since distilled water was needed to augment supplies to forty-two boilers and cater for the needs of up to a thousand men. There was always the joke about the medical staff who doctored the drinking water to kill ‘the desires of home’. Amongst the younger married men the standing quip: "What’s the second thing you’ll do when you get home?" The old marrieds would reply: "After drinking this tea I’ll need three weeks notice and a blow-lamp!" The age-old subject of course.

Besides the distilling plants I had to gain watch-keeping experience with turbo-generators, reciprocating engine generators, hydraulic machinery which traversed the fifteen-inch gun turrets, rudder steering gear machinery and the huge reciprocating air pumps which maintained a vacuum in the main engines’ turbine condensers. With the completion of all of these experiences I had to sit a written examination and visit the various machinery compartments with the responsible Engineering Officer and answer questions. One Sunday evening I was told to report to the Engineer’s Office and there the Senior Engineer told me I had passed the examination. I now possessed an Auxiliary Watchkeeping Certificate; I was on the first rung of the advancement ladder to becoming a Leading Stoker. During my periods of watchkeeping on those machines my opposite number was a Geordie lad called Doug Scantlebury, and more of him later.

The campaign in Norway (Norwegian Campaign Summary) had taken an adverse turn. The aircraft carrier H.M.S. Glorious was to be used to evacuate our troops. Escort warships were required and H.M.S. Acasta and H.M.S. Ardent were detailed. A notice was put on our mess-deck notice-board for all holders of Auxiliary Watchkeeping Certificates to append their names, so of course I put my name on the list. The Acasta and Ardent were short of watchkeepers and the Fleet had to make up the shortages. Several of our lads were chosen, but luckily not me. In the ensuing evacuation both the Acasta and Ardent were sunk by enemy action with no survivors. One of the lads to go was a Scottish Leading Stoker who had recently married a Norwegian girl. On a leave period there was no hope of him travelling to Norway so we used to pull his leg about the amount of leave he would have accumulated by the end of the war, together with the oft-repeated question: "What’s the second thing you will do?" He never came back. The aircraft carrier H.M.S. Glorious was also sunk and I eventually met two of her survivors. One of them, a stoker, was in a bad way because of the immersion in the icy sea. Of the other survivor, more anon.

At the outbreak of war the keeping of diaries was strictly forbidden; it is amazing how many senior officers were able to work around this rule and publish their memoirs. Because of this order I cannot recall whether I was in harbour or at sea during the first Christmas of the war. I do know that whilst at Halifax the ship had stocked up with enough frozen poultry to give each of us a good dinner. The arrival of mail and a photograph was always a well looked-forward-to event. In the D.B. party during a quiet spell on watch recent photographs would be shown, compared and discussed. During one of the quieter night watches my watch P.O. produced a photograph of a very pretty girl whom I immediately recognised. "That’s a smashing bit of stuff. I know her very well," I said. He looked at me suspiciously until I explained. In Bass-Hamlyn’s class was a boy called Baser and he had twin sisters. The picture was of one of the twins, who turned out to be the wife of the P.O. All was well when I explained how I came to know her. I expect I had even chased her around the bandstand in Devonport Park when we were growing up - a favourite occupation in the summer evenings. But I didn’t tell him that.

Another of my classmates, Jack Cunningham, was a P.O. in the Repulse; he had joined the Navy as soon as he was eighteen and made fairly rapid advancement, proving the opportunities were there. The Chief Mechanician in charge of the evaps when I was learning about the intricacies of distillation was Chiefy Binmore and his son joined us as a Second Class Stoker. The Chief asked me to show the lad around the Department and generally offer some help when needed. This I did, helping him to find his feet until he made friends and found an ‘oppo’ for himself.

The Postcard issued by the Royal family to servicemen Christmas 1939

Early in the war the Germans introduced an acoustic sea mine which had a polarity which caused it to be attracted to the hull of a ship and explode on impact. The laying of these mines caused some havoc amongst our shipping and a remedy had to be found. Accordingly, in February 1940 the Repulse returned to Devonport to have the necessary electrical machinery fitted, giving the hull of the ship the same polarity as the mines, thus repelling them. We knew this as the Degausing Gear. Being in dock saw the ship’s company given leave and yet another change-over amongst the crew. Experienced ratings left the ship to make backbones in other ships and more H.O.’s joined. Mabel was heavily engrossed in her Civil Defence duties; when she was on afternoon and evening shift I was at a loose end, more or less waiting for ten o’ clock, when I would walk across Devonport Park to meet her. The local public house was - and still is - called The Standard Inn. At that time the manager was Percy Hemer, not that it has a lot of significance at this period, but surprisingly the surname crops up again at a later date, and in unusual circumstances. Anyhow, I found myself a member of the Standard’s darts team. They must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel, methinks. At any rate, these matches occupied my evenings whilst I was on leave. I have never been much of a beer drinker, being content to drink beer shandy.

Being a one-time member of the Metropolitan Police Force, my Father had joined the Police War Reserve Force and, much to my surprise and hilarity, I found him one evening with an 0.303 Lee Enfield rifle outside the gates of Keyham Gas Works, where he was supposed to be on guard. I was surprised because I thought a sentry would have been a soldier. Of course I asked him what he was supposed to be doing with a rifle and he told me that he knew all about rifles and revolvers from his experience in the 1914-18 war. I had a look at the rifle; the magazine was empty and the safety catch was on, so he wasn’t going to do a lot of damage with it! Knowing Dad and his exploits on the prowl in earlier days, being confined to the Gasworks gates wouldn’t suit him for very long. When back at sea, I learned that ammunition had at last been issued to him and that one night he challenged somebody and fired the rifle. He didn’t hit anybody or anything, but such was the furore at the enquiry that he was taken off that duty, which no doubt suited him perfectly.

So we were at sea once more and again based at Scapa Flow, which was supposed to be impregnable. Not so however. One of the battleships billeted in the Flow was H.M.S. Royal Oak, a sister ship to the Revenge, in which I had served. There were to my knowledge five of this battleship class; the others were Ramillies, Resolution and the Royal Sovereign, the last being nicknamed the "Tiddly Quid". One night the Flow was breached by a German submarine, commanded by Gunther Prien. That which was always feared happened and Prien had a dreamed-of opportunity. He naturally didn’t want to hang about, so he torpedoed the best target he could find, the Royal Oak, and she sank, taking with her a large number of her crew. (After the war, whilst on an engineering course, I met Herbert Johnstone, who had escaped from the ship and was able to swim to safety. At the time of writing he lives in Stonehouse.) With the explosions in the Royal Oak, action stations went off in Repulse, steam was raised very rapidly and in a very short time we sailed to Loch Ewe. Prien had found a way into Scapa Flow and found a way out again, so the Flow was no longer a haven until all of the channels had been made safe. Loch Ewe was to be the anchorage for the forseeable future.

In these modern times, the age of television, video, radio and electronic games, it is not unknown to hear a youngster say: "I’m bored." And we elder folk find it difficult to understand why. In those war-time days life in the Repulse became a bore. The ship went out on patrols, our lives were spent in watchkeeping, with little in the way of relaxation when we returned to Loch Ewe. Our war effort seemed to be on the receiving end in every field. On the radio we heard a broadcaster from Germany, nicknamed Lord Haw Haw. His job was to spread despair and despondency amongst our side, but he uttered such awful drivel that people looked forward to his daily broadcasts. The number of warships he claimed to have been sunk were often complete fabrications, chiefly I suppose to undermine the morale of people at home.


on to Chapter 5. "Coastal Forces Beckon"
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revised 27/9/11