Memories of the early days of WW2 By John Philip Stevenson

When the War broke out I was on exchange with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean as a very lowly Midshipman.

We immediately sailed for our war station in Simonstown in South Africa. Our main task was to keep lookout for two German Battlecruisers, namely the Graf Sree and the Scheer which had sailed from Germany well before war broke out. It turned out to be mostly a long and boring search in the South Atlantic until Holland was overrun at which time we were ordered to take as prizes any Dutch ships encountered.

Some days later we sighted a large ship which turned out to be Dutch and we ordered it to heave to and await inspection. A prize crew of twenty sailors was formed and to my surprise, and some horror I was ordered to take charge. We were armed to the teeth and we went over the side to one of our large whalers and fortunately in fair weather climbed up the side of the Dutchman. As I clambered over the ships side I was greeted by a large Dutch captain who scowled and demanded what I was there for. I confirmed the fact that Holland was now overrun and that they were to be taken as a prize and taken into Dakar, and await further instructions. He was not happy but invited me to go below and have some breakfast. We sat down at a large table and were served greasy fried eggs and two glasses were placed in front of me, one filled with Dutch Gin and the other with red wine. He raised his glass and the toast and I replied:” Thank you but I do not drink” . He scowled and said:” You do now!”  I managed to get some of the red wine down but could not handle the Gin.

Four days later I turned him over to the harbour master in Dakar and went ashore to await the news of what was to become of me. Word came that in the next few days I would be picked up by HMS Shropshire’s seaplane and taken to Freetown. Finally, I rejoined Shropshire a few weeks later.

jps-s-atl

The search for the German cruisers intensified and we had word that it was likely that the Graf Spee was in the vicinity of the sea lanes off South America. We set off in that direction and shortly got word that she had been sighted and was being engaged by three British cruisers. We opened up to full speed and headed for them, fortunately, only about one hundred miles away. Two hours later we caught sight of the smoke and noise of battle but by the time we arrived the Graf Spee had withdrawn and had entered Montevideo harbour. Like any foreign warship they were only allowed 24 hours sanctuary and after that time, we saw her steaming out. We all went to action stations ready for the final battle, but she hove to and blew herself up, having taken all of the sailors off.

graf-spee

 We steamed in and went past the burning wreck and witnessed the final sinking, A few days later we were given permission for a 24 hour break into Montevideo. We had some leave and met some of the German sailors on shore. They were unhappy but pleasant enough, though sad that their Captain (Langsdorff) had committed suicide.

After the mandatory twenty four hours we sailed for the Falkland Islands where the largest of the three British ships (HMS Exeter) was being repaired as much as possible. We were ordered to escort her to England. Many days later, we left her at Plymouth and proceeded to Scapa Flow.

News had just come in that the Germans were about to invade Norway. We set out to sweep down the coast of Norway. Fortunately, we sighted no one and we returned to Scapa and thence to Liverpool. Here we were discharged (ashore) to attend our Sub Lieutenant courses in Portsmouth.

These lasted for three months – mostly under heavy bombing, and I was given the task of

manning a twelve pounder anti-aircraft gun with a very limited supply of ammunition. Fortunately, very few aircraft came low enough to take aim at and so I had ammunition enough to be useful and was sent off to the South coast, to prepare to repel the German invaders who were about to come ashore. If they had succeeded, we would not have lasted long. Fortunately Hitler changed his mind and went to Russia instead.

With courses completed, I joined the destroyer HMAS Nestor and that is another story.