An Australian RNVR in WW II
This essay was awarded second prize in the Naval Officers Club Literary Prize competition, 2001. It was published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter Number 46, 1 September 2001, pp 12-16.
by Noel Buckley
The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 caught most people, including me, by surprise. In July and August of that year I was on a driving holiday in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy and France, in company with a young Sydney doctor and a Canadian architect. Then, being of an enquiring mind, on 19 August I joined a students’ tour group on a Russian ship in the Thames Estuary, bound for Leningrad and Moscow.
The ship had not long left the Kiel Canal when radio news informed us of the signing by Germany and Russia of a Non-Aggression Pact and, on 3 September, having reached Moscow, we learnt that, following Germany’s attack on Poland, Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany. It took 23 days for us touring students to get back to England, via Finland, Sweden and Norway and on a Norwegian ship across the North Sea.
I was in the middle of a post-graduate law course at Cambridge University and, in view of the Phony War situation at that time, I decided to finish my course and then return to Melbourne and join the Australian Navy. But in June 1940, when the Germans had overrun France and caused French submission, and the British Army’s evacuation from France, without its armament, left Britain alone to fight, I went to Australia House in London to see whether I could join the Australian Navy from London, but the answer was a big “No, No”. So I returned to Cambridge and signed on for the Royal Navy.
My training as a “CW” (Commissioned and Warrant candidate, ed.) naval rating started in September 1940 in HMS Collingwood and then HMS Victory. After four months training, with quite a lot of it disrupted by frequent air raids on the Portsmouth area, I was posted to a cruiser, HMS Manchester, which unexpectedly had to go into drydock for repairs and I therefore was ordered back to Portsmouth.
Blessing in disguise
This interlude was a blessing in disguise because, during my absence, some of my fellow trainees were posted to HMS Hood and, with hindsight of her early demise, I am grateful not to have been one of those fellows sent to join her.
The 50,000-ton battleship Bismarck (left) sank the 48,000-ton battlecruiser HMS Hood, 24 May 1941.
In March 1941 I was ordered to go to Scapa Flow and join HMS King George V (KGV). This battleship was newly built and was the flagship of the Home Fleet, having on board the C in C, Admiral Tovey. She was of 35,000 tons, 700 feet (213 m) long, had ten 14 inch (36 cm) and sixteen 5.25 inch (13 cm) guns and one seaplane. I served four and a half months in her.
What I remember most about her were her huge size, her convoy-covering journeys to and from Halifax in Canada (necessitated by the presence in the Atlantic of the German warships Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Admiral Scheer), acting as lookout in the crow’s nest of the high mainmast when the ship was rolling slowly but heavily, watching the huge 14 inch shells leave the forward guns during a practice shoot, and (last, but not least) the chase after, and sinking of, the German battleship Bismarck.
The Bismarck was of similar age, of 50,000 tons, 791 feet (241 m) long, with eight 15 inch (38 cm) and twelve 5.9 inch (15 cm) guns, four aircraft, and 103 officers and 1962 crew.
Bismarck had been reported on 21 May 1941 to have left Bergen in Norway, headed for the Atlantic Ocean via the Denmark Strait, west of Iceland. The KGV was out of harbour engaged in gunnery practice when this news was received, and the Admiral ordered HMS Prince of Wales (a sister battleship), HMS Hood and two cruisers to chase and engage Bismarck.
“Sink the Bismarck“
Next day, as soon as KGV had refuelled, it set sail westward from Scapa Flow to try to intercept Bismarck, in company with HMS Repulse, HMS Victorious (aircraft carrier), four cruisers and seven destroyers. Two days later (24 May) we learnt that Prince of Wales and Hood had met and engaged Bismarck but Hood had been hit at long range by Bismarck and had blown up (there being only three survivors). Prince of Wales was also seriously damaged, and had to withdraw.
The Bismarck was followed for a while by a British cruiser but in the foggy conditions Bismarck managed to elude its followers and its location, somewhere south of Greenland, became a worrying mystery. Fortunately on 26 May at the end of a long search and through a hole in the clouds, a Catalina aircraft sighted Bismarck headed towards France.
Swordfish, Albacores attack
She was attacked and her steering, and perhaps speed, were impaired by torpedoes from planes of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and Victorious. KGV travelling at 27 knots got to within 100 miles of the German battleship but, when joined by HMS Rodney (coming from Greenoch), KGV slowed to Rodney‘s maximum speed of 22 knots, which was the enemy’s estimated speed.
Bismarck closes KGV
Late that night when we were about 400 miles west of Brest (the French naval port) we learnt that Bismarck had turned towards KGV and that we would probably engage one another early the next morning. During the night both ships altered course at times to avoid getting too close during darkness. At daylight next day the battle began with KGV and Rodney attacking in unison.
I was on fire-watch duty below deck, so did not see Bismarck until, after some time, it had ceased firing and was leaning to port and on fire, with some of the crew jumping into the ocean. Bismarck did not hit either of the two British ships, possibly due to steering and stability problems arising from the earlier torpedo damage.
As it was known that Hitler had ordered a considerable number of aircraft and submarines to converge on the British ships, a British cruiser was told to hasten Bismarck‘s sinking by torpedoes and the British ships dispersed as quickly as possible. KGV was also in fact so short of fuel that she had to head for Loch Ewe in Scotland to refuel urgently.
Four months later, I started my very interesting officers training course in HMS King Alfred, followed by a shorter anti-submarine course in HMS Nimrod in Scotland.
In response to a question at the end of my training course as to what kind of a ship would I prefer to be posted to, I said I would like a smaller ship (thinking of one like a destroyer) but to my surprise I was posted to a convoy escort vessel, which was a converted ocean trawler.
HMS Northern Wave was larger than most trawlers (655 tons), with a greater length (200 feet) and a higher bow that enabled her to be kept at sea in the Arctic Ocean waters, even when the sea was very rough. So one felt reasonably safe from the natural elements even in stormy weather, provided that the bow was kept headed into the wind and waves, the single coal-fired engine did not break down, and that, when you had to move fore or aft along the deck (you couldn’t do it below decks), you were able to dodge the rushes of seawater across the deck resulting from the waves coming over the very low freeboard.
Sometimes the seawater even penetrated the officers’ cabins and the crew’s mess-deck, as the ship rolled from side to side in a gale. She carried enough “black diamond” fuel to be able to stay at sea 12 or more days at a time. Her top speed was only about 11 knots but this was enough to keep up with most merchant ship convoys. She was armed with a four-inch gun and two anti-aircraft Oerliken guns, and a load of depth charges.
Most of our convoy work was in the Western Approaches to Britain and between Britain and Iceland, but we were “sitters” to be chosen for the long Russian convoy trips because of the ship’s characteristics I have mentioned. I had the doubtful pleasure of being involved in two such return journeys: in April and May 1942 and in December 1942 to February 1943.
Murmansk convoy territory. (See Battle of the North Cape.)
My first such trip was as part of convoy PQ14 that took us 12 days to cover the 1800 miles between Iceland and Murmansk in Russia, starting on 8 April 1942. At that time of the year, there is quite a lot of daylight every 24 hours.
The Arctic Circle passes just north of Iceland, but our route went as far north as 74 degrees. The sea-ice floes retreat further north in summer than in winter, but the Admiralty had apparently miscalculated how soon that retreat began, so we ran into trouble.
We started with 32 merchant ships, with an escort of four trawlers, two minesweepers and one destroyer. We soon ran into snowstorms with thick ice forming on every horizontal part of the ship. This required constant chipping off and throwing overboard, to avoid capsizing.
Three nights later we suddenly ran into sea-ice floes (pack-ice) and these persisted for two more days and nights together with patches of thick fog, at the end of which time we had only eight cargo ships remaining in the convoy, the others having turned back. My ship had also had its anti-submarine dome (below the hull) broken off by the ice. The oscillator was no longer operational. We were glad to see that we had been joined by four destroyers and four corvettes, and a cruiser (HMS Edinburgh) was in the neighbourhood.
Unfortunately for us, our ship had also developed engine trouble, which necessitated stopping for a quarter of an hour to effect repairs, and then racing to catch up with the convoy. We were not amused to receive a signal from the Commodore of the convoy saying “Try to stop making smoke.”
A further two days later, when we were nearer the Norwegian coast, our convoy was sighted by a prowling German reconnaissance plane, which circled out of gun reach, homing submarines on the convoy.
At this point we were joined by a further five destroyers. Because of sightings of submarines by the destroyers, we were at Action Stations all the next day (16 April), and at about 1 pm the Convoy Commodore’s ship (Empire Howard) was hit by two torpedoes and sank rapidly.
We were ordered by the Senior Naval Officer of the convoy to pick up any survivors, and this we did with some difficulty because our engine defect didn’t allow us to go astern. We picked up 18 men and another trawler picked up 20, out of a total crew of 56. Three of those we rescued died on board shortly afterwards because of the extremely cold water they had been in; over a quarter of an hour in the ocean there meant death.
It took the convoy a further three days to reach Murmansk, during which time my ship had to make another 35-minute stop to repair the engine, a German Junkers plane tried bombing the convoy (without success), we met patches of most welcome fog, and we saw some distant icebergs.
Frequent air attacks
Murmansk, in Kola Inlet, was not an attractive place. It was under very frequent air attack, being only about 50 miles from the German front line in northern Finland. There was almost nothing to do ashore. It was most depressing to see the large number of wounded Russian soldiers waiting for hospital admission in a very slow-moving line.
Our ship had to go into dry-dock there in order to replace our A/S dome beneath the hull. This and other repairs (to the engine) took so long that we missed joining the next return convoy. This turned out to be all to our advantage for at least two reasons. First, because that convoy was savagely attacked by German warships and the cruiser Edinburgh was sunk following torpedo damage. Second, her loss was our gain, in that the load of rum with which she had replenished us in Murmansk was recorded only in accounts at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, and that rum was most acceptable to us for use as a body-warmer on many subsequent icy occasions.
Our return journey of nine days to Iceland, towards the end of May, was with QP12, and was not quite so exciting, due in part to protective fog. However, our ship had further engine trouble and when we had to stop to effect repairs, one of the escorting destroyers signalled “Too bad.” which we thought rather out-of-place.
However, the minesweeper (HMS Harrier) offered to tow us while the repairs were carried out, and they did so and enabled both of us to gradually catch up with the convoy.
My second journey to Murmansk (JW51A) started from Loch Ewe on December 15, 1942. This was midwinter, which gave us the benefit of very long hours of darkness each day. Despite the risk of ice floes being further south than in summer, we reached 74 degrees north again, but were lucky not be attacked by the enemy. We were fortunate in being treated to several nights of the glorious aurora borealis on the way and arrived at Murmansk after 11 days.
The return trip was less fortunate but the convoy had a powerful escort and our only loss was of one cargo ship, which was torpedoed, but with no loss of life.
In April 1943, I was posted to another trawler named HMS Haarlem, based at Gibraltar, and subsequently to another one named Lady Hogarth. These ships were employed in A/S patrolling in the Strait of Gibraltar, in escorting single or multiple merchant ships along the North African coast or down to Casablanca, and in escorting cable-repair ships doing work on defective ocean cables between Lisbon and Madeira or the Azores.
When off escort duties, I was able to climb and explore the Rock of Gibraltar itself, which is about 1400 feet high and one mile across at its base. It has numerous fascinating caves and tunnels in it, some of them made for military purposes and some made by men for living purposes in earlier centuries.
The Rock also has had built onto one side of it a huge sloping catchment cover to collect water for drinking and other purposes for Gibraltar’s inhabitants and visitors.
A further interesting experience I had was as a passenger on British submarine undertaking exercises off Gibraltar in attacking ships and evading depth-charge attacks. I can’t say that I really enjoyed it.
My service in the Royal Navy totalled six years.
Finally, I’d like to share two short poems I composed in 1945 when out on anti-submarine patrol in the Straits of Gibraltar. As you will gather when you read them, I had been a long time separated from close friends and family.
Glimpses of Beauty
There are glimpses of beauty, moments of peace,
That come to a sailor’s mind,
Though the struggle for Life, midst Death, never cease,
He’ll forget the sorrows behind.
There’s the flow of red sunsets, richest of hue,
The sheen of the moon up on high,
The fleecy-white clouds, the sea of deep blue,
And the azure that paints a clear sky.
There’s the calmness and comfort that follow the storm,
The pleasure of retaining a meal,
The glory of sunshine, face-tanning, and warm,
The fancies of dreams that seem real,
There’s the flashing of wings of a gull wind-spurned,
The gleaming of fish near the rail,
The vision of land after seas gale-churned,
The sight of a full-spread sail.
There’s the thought of his girl, or maybe his wife,
And hope for the waiting mail,
Perhaps there’s the prospect of more peaceful life,
And plans for a home in the dale.
There are pals whose acquaintance is all too brief,
The making of friendships that bind,
All these bring a beauty, a joy, and relief,
To the strain in a sailor’s mind.
And in more serious mood:
If a man be happy, then who dare say him nay?
But wait, how came he happy – at whose expense, delay?
We cannot live in isolation; we are members of a whole
Community and nation, of a world that seeks its soul.