BY RICHARD WEST
Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN THE Chief Stoker first met me, he bellowed at me, “What do you mean, Dids, you can’t read? I promise you, we’ll soon change that!” He then added reading and writing lessons to my daily routines and sure enough, I learned to read, while our destroyer sailed through the freezing northern seas. Probably the most valuable thing I could have acquired, during my stint in the Royal Navy.
I had been known as Dids, from a very young age. My real name is Arthur, but nobody ever uses it. Being blessed with a broad smile, and a laugh, which chuckles through my speech, people see me a jolly type, even when I might be worried or frightened. The Chief Stocker would often say, “Keep smiling Dids, it helps us all see the sunnier side of things.” I felt part of the crew and tried hard to do my bit.
After I completed my training in the early summer of 1943, I was posted to a new destroyer, HMS Virago. To be honest, I had misgivings about being a seaman, because I can’t swim! My job was in the engine room, assisting the stokers and engineers, tending the boilers and turbines. Essentially, I was a grease monkey.
We went through trials and shake down exercises, on HMS Virago. Then she was put to work on Arctic Convoys, to Murmansk in Northern Russia.
These Arctic Convoys took place in the winter, when the Sun hardly appears at all, for months on end. Most of us, who took part in these convoys, spent a good deal of time either nearly frozen or terrified.
It was physically arduous, due to the intense cold, terrible seas and danger of attack. Other dangers were icebergs, or capsizing, from ice build up on the superstructure. Chipping ice off the ships guns, masts and decks, was not a cheery past time. No one wants to be on deck, or worse, up on the higher parts of the ship, when the wind is howling and spray continuously soaks you. But no one wants the ship to suddenly roll over and sink. So you chip away at the ice and try to be brave through your watch. Then you get to go below and find a steam pipe to cuddle up to.
In addition to the natural hazards, the convoys were attacked by aircraft stationed in Northern Norway, as well as submarines and sometimes, powerful surface vessels. The ever-present worry of torpedoes plays the devil with your nerves. While the scream and crash of bombs falling around the ship, can freeze your blood to ice, so you cannot move.
My only consolation was, I stayed warmer than most of the crew, most of the time. The engine room is by definition warm, being full of hot machinery.
There were six children in our family. I was the youngest, ten years younger than my brother Dick. Being the youngest, I had been looked after a good deal by my siblings. When I was five, my father died of tuberculosis. Soon followed, by my eldest sister, Eugenie. The family had lived in Peckham, in South East, London. Two rented rooms, no cooking facilities, a gaslight and little heating. A perfect incubator for disease!
After the First World War, the Government built Council House Estates around London. Our family was lucky. We moved into a small house in Downham, in S.E. London. It was too small for the family, but much better than two rooms in Peckham. I was born and grew up in Downham.
By the time the Second World War broke out, I was living with my mother, while my remaining siblings, were married. Even though the Downham Estate was away from London itself, we still experienced bombing, forcing us into air raid shelters at night. It was from this suburban life, that I was catapulted into the Senior Service. Like so many others, I knew nothing of ships, the sea, or war. What I did know, was how to be happy and content. I achieved that with a smile and a chuckle. But what had puzzled me, and my family, was why the Royal Navy would want a sailor, who could neither swim, read or write?
My older brother Dick, was jealous when he heard I had been called up for the Royal Navy. Being in the Navy had always been his dream, but he was stuck in the Army. He was also worried because I was barely eighteen years old.
By then the war had settled into a series of slugging matches, from North Africa to the Atlantic, to Russia, and to the Arctic Ocean.
In December 1943, HMS Virago was part of a convoy’s destroyer screen, when the German capital ship, Scharnhorst, ventured out from Northern Norway. Two convoys were in the vicinity, ours, returning from Russia, and an outgoing convoy.
A Royal Navy task force was in the area, acting as cover for the convoys. The hope was, they might get an opportunity to engage the Scharnhorst. She was located by Royal Navy cruisers and attacked. During this brief fight, Scharnhorst’s radar was disabled. There followed a cat and mouse search, as the Scharnhorst lost the cruisers in the dark and heavy seas.
Our destroyer group was detached from the convoy, to act as additional escorts for the battleship, Duke of York. We pounded through the heavy seas as fast as possible, without endangering the ships. The Duke of York located the Scharnhorst and opened fire, guided entirely by her radar. The slugging match went on for a considerable time, until the injured Scharnhorst, broke away at high speed.
She was located again. Shells from the Duke of York caused further damage. One shell penetrated the Scharnhorst’s armour and exploded in the engine room.
Losing speed, Scharnhorst turned and fought, what all knew, would be her final fight.
Badly damaged, but still firing any remaining operating guns, she was attacked with torpedoes. We were in the final attack group, racing towards our quarry with all guns blazing. The noise was terrifying. Especially down in the locked engine room, with all the screaming machinery.
Torpedo hits caused the Scharnhorst to capsize under the black sky, and sink in the freezing sea.
We spent 1944 on Arctic Service and supporting the D Day landings. Then we went to the Indian Ocean, to assist with operations there. At the very end of the war, our ship was part of a destroyer group, which attacked and sunk the Japanese cruiser Huwago. This was the last naval action in the war, involving naval gunnery.
When the war finished, I returned to Downham and found work, as a freelance journeyman, or doing small jobs as a contractor. In the late 1950’s I married Ellen and we moved to Bromley. People knew me as the smiling man, who was never too busy, to say Hello!
In 1960, Dick’s son was eleven, and he had seen a movie involving a naval battle. I heard his excited talk about the movie. When I told him I had been in a sea battle, during which the Scharnhorst had been sunk. He was enthralled.
“Uncle, please tell me, what you did, during the battle?’’ He pleaded.
After giving him one of my characteristic chuckles, I said, “I hid under the boilers until the firing stopped!”
I could see his surprise, at this unexpected remark.
“It’s true! The Chief Stoker had everything under control and he knew how scared I was. I know he was scared as well, but he was in charge!”
“You should also remember what this was about. We were there to kill the Scharnhorst, or to be killed by her. When she went down, more than 1,500 brave sailors went with her. This was a frightening thing to be involved with when you are eighteen years old. Everyone was very sad it had happened. But glad to be alive.”
I hoped my candid remarks would help set my nephew straight, about how terrible war is. Not by blustering or lecturing, but by showing him how human all the people involved are. Those fighting the sea, that night, were probably not very different from me. No matter which side they were on.
Ellen tells me it’s 2015.
A man came today and Ellen said he is my nephew.
He asked me, about when I was at the Battle of the North Cape. I could remember visiting India in a destroyer but had no memory of being in battles.
At 90 years old, I’m better off not remembering. Even if there was a battle!
I chuckled and smiled, at such a strange thought.