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The Struggle Begins

 

Ian Hay now describes his feelings at outbreak of the Second World War.

 

I’d settled into life onboard Repulse very easily, and my action station was as centre-sight setter on ‘A’ turret one of the main armament 15-inch guns onboard (We had 3 turrets A, B and Y). They each weighed in the region of 800 tons and the size of the gun barrels can’t honestly be appreciated this day and age.

 

To get to my working position, I’d have to work my way between A and B turrets and end up for’d under the blast bag of A turret. Unlike everyone else in the gun crew, I’d be facing ‘aft’ and would receive signals to operate two range and deflection dials, which controlled the turret in elevation and deflection. I think the most horrible duty we had to perform was mopping out our gun turret. This had to be done almost continually, as the condensation inside was terrible and if it wasn’t kept in check, severe damage could occur, when the guns were in use.

 

On the 3rd September 1939, we were off the coast of Scotland when the unforgettable words came over the radio “A state of war now exists between ourselves and Germany”. The conflict had finally begun. I’d just finished doing general maintenance work on ‘A’ turret with Michael. The time was 1100 hours and we made our way to our mess. It was uncanny to see the difference in reaction between Michael and me as opposed to the elder men onboard. I can only speak of our feelings at that time. It’s quite possible other boys felt differently; but we were scared young men wanting to enjoy life, not end it in a sea battle.

Left to right. Jim McBroughton (Mac), Michael and myself pictured outside our gun turret (click here to view a larger picture - opens a new window) (34435 bytes)
Left to right. Jim McBroughton (Mac), Michael and myself pictured outside our gun turret

This wasn’t the attitude shown by the elder men onboard, they wanted the confrontation to them it was inevitable and the sooner it began, the quicker they’d be home to their families. Even some of these men had underestimated the military power of Germany.

 

There’s an interesting point to bring up at this moment, it was reported (although never officially confirmed) that within a couple of hours of the declaration, a German U-boat launched a torpedo attack against us. I for one didn't see anything, others claimed they did. I feel nowadays, it happened and was most probably kept quiet for propaganda reasons. This was the beginning of the noted good luck Repulse would enjoy, for the time being at least.

 

In a matter of days we were on Northern patrols in an area between Scotland and Iceland, during the next two years, we’d cover every inch of this part of the world. Our duties in this area were to try and seek out any German raiders who’d be trying to attack the ever-increasing convoys from America and Canada heading to Britain. It was very cold and arduous work and at first I was constantly tired. This must have been through stress, because every day we were aware that people were being killed on land and at sea. You couldn’t afford to be the least bit lax in your work.

 

The intensity of the German onslaught was brought home to all the ships crew on the 13th October 1939. We were anchored at Scapa Flow, having been there for a few days in what we thought was comparative safety, as it was surrounded by the strongest anti submarine nets of any British port. That evening we sailed for Rosyth, I’d completed my watch so I turned in. In the early hours of the following morning, Michael, who was obviously very distraught, woke me. He went onto say that a matter of a few hours after we left Scapa a German U-boat somehow managed to enter the harbour. It then torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak and she had sunk with very heavy loss of life.

 

I found this beyond belief and to add final insult, our destroyers hadn’t been able to locate the U-boat and it was thought it had escaped. The atmosphere onboard was understandably sombre. It was only a matter of a few hours before that I had been ashore with lads from the Oak and had no way of knowing, if any had survived. German propaganda announced the following day, that they’d sunk Repulse. I think in some way this made light of the situation, we all thought of the surprise we’d give the Deutschland or similar pocket battleships, if we caught them. As obviously they’d now think we were history. It didn’t take long for Lord Haw-Haw to admit his mistake, but as expected, he informed us it wouldn’t be long before they sunk us as well. No one was bothered by this evil man’s gesticulations.

 

The person responsible for the sinking of the Royal Oak was Lt Gaunter Priem. He commanded ‘U47’ and although I hate to say it, I didn’t see any braver attacks by Axis commanders throughout the rest of the war. After this tragedy we didn't use Scapa Flow for some time, our main port in that area became Loch Uye, until the defences at Scapa were strengthened. I was now becoming adjusted to war and began to lose the constant fear of death that initially haunted me. I’m sure the atmosphere onboard Repulse contributed to this, especially when in the company of hard men like Scouse Hogarth. I think he could have beaten the entire German Navy on his own in a street brawl.

 

In December 1939 we escorted a huge troop convoy of some 20,000 Canadians to Britain, it was nerve-racking, as the U- boats seemed to be operating at will. I couldn’t see how we could have escaped sinking if we had been attacked by a wolf pack. However, at least we had speed on our side, the poor merchant seamen had no hope. The waters in this part of the world would kill them in seconds if they were sunk. Having said that, we always had a good reception whenever escorting a convoy and were considered to be a lucky ship, never losing one life whilst performing these duties. After safely delivering the Canadian we hardly had any time to ourselves as the war at sea had started to escalate tremendously. We went out on more Northern patrols, it was the Christmas period and we’d all hoped for some leave, but it was a desperate time. We were on patrol with the battleship Barham and four destroyers. I can’t honestly say exactly, where we patrolled, but on the way back to Scotland, Repulse’s luck held again.

I think the reader is going to think all I did was sleep onboard, but as with the previous time with the Royal Oak, I was having five minutes nap on one of the mess tables. Suddenly there was an almighty explosion that actually threw me to the deck. I thought we’d been hit, so I got up top as quickly as possible, (along with hundreds of others). Once there I could see the Barham listing heavily, she’d been hit by a torpedo and the four destroyers were frantically searching for the U-boat. Everyone was immediately sent to action stations and extra lookouts were posted. In an instant, there was a tremendous increase in our speed. We soon realised that Captain Spooner had left the Barham with her escorts and we were on our way back to Scotland. We later heard that the battleship made it safely back to Liverpool and was repaired. I think she can thank her destroyer escorts for scaring the U-boat away.

Wrong Lanes.

A short period after this, Scapa Flow was in use again, we now return to our scouse shipmate, Reg Woods. He tells why this chapter has such an unusual title.

We’d been at anchor in Scapa for a couple of days and I was on watch with my crew on our pom-pom, it was quite a cloudy day, but visibility was still reasonable. When you were on duty certain rules of engagement applied to allow friendly aircraft to fly over the harbour without being engaged by our AA guns. Our planes were supposed to fly in lanes or flight paths similar only on a smaller scale, to the idea at modern airports these days.

 It was just after lunchtime and I was talking to Reg Slatter and Chicken Howe when I heard the noise of a plane. I told Slats and he immediately said “close up”. We started the gun motors and as soon as it dived through the clouds we had its height. Slats gave the order ‘open fire’ (all that meant, was turning the handle and the barrels burst into life). In seconds we scored several hits and saw the plane lose height. It finally crashed behind the Flotta, a little island behind Scapa. We didn’t find out till later on in the day, that it was one of our own.


This caused an immediate panic in the fleet, as all Admirals present, wanted to know why we’d opened fire. I thought we’d have a right roasting, but Slats would have none of it, insisting the plane was out of lanes. Thankfully he was correct and the pilot was proven to be at fault; miraculously he survived. We were jubilant having done our job efficiently and effectively. After our excellent sharp shooting, you can imagine we had all kinds of ribbing by the crew, though no one doubted the ability of our AA gunners. We‘d shown our worth.

 

Life at Scapa Flow. I am pictured kneeling on the extreme right with other members of our crew (click here to see a larger view of this picture - opens a new window) (40134 bytes)

Life at Scapa Flow. I am pictured kneeling on the extreme right with other members of our crew.

 

I was always worried (the same as everyone else) by the U-boat menace and it was exciting to get away from convoy duties in April 1940. At this time, the Germans had invaded Norway and we’d been ordered to engage their Navy in the ports of Narvik and Trondheim. We found out that the initial allied attacks had been repelled, but there was to be further action, mounted by ‘H’ class destroyers. I felt this was our chance to become a hunter and not the hunted and there was a great buzz onboard. Things had been going very badly for the allies and now we could help redress the balance. As we went to action stations I realised that our gun crews would have a tough time ahead of us. The German airforce was very strong and in large numbers in the area. However, I never experienced many greater disappointments than the next orders we received.

We were told to stand off at the mouth of the Fjord and await the arrival of HMS Warspite an older battleship, apparently, she was carrying an Admiral and he wanted to supervise the action. It was upsetting to be so close to inflicting damage on the Germans and then have to back down. We later heard, that our Captain protested, but all was in vain. The action was a success on our part and the destroyers did a thorough job on the Axis warships. Although, I feel we could have accomplished as much and maybe more than the Warspite. After all our months of convoy duties we should have had a chance to show our mettle.

After the disappointment of Narvik, we had quite a funny incident on our way back to Scapa. The air recognition officer onboard was a Lieutenant Commander Jay, he’d have the final word as to whether we’d engage any possible hostile planes that had been sighted. It was the middle of the afternoon and I was on watch on the pom-poms. Suddenly we saw three planes in an attack formation over Repulse. The alarms sounded and we got the height straight away, having no-doubts that they were German and by the silhouette most likely to be Heinkel 111’s. I naturally thought the next order would be to commence firing, as they were almost directly overhead. This wasn’t to be. Commander Jay deciding they were friendly and the order came back “Stand down. Friendly aircraft” Slats and myself couldn’t believe it. We were about to be attacked and had been ordered to sit back and let it happen. Everyone knew he’d made a mistake and were telling him so, but he wouldn’t listen and stuck to his decision. I then heard a comment by I think it was Slats. It went like this. “Well Sir, if those are friendly aircraft, then they’ve just dropped some friendly fuckin’ bombs our way”.

With that our guns opened up and the Heinkel’s escaped, a matter of seconds later, a flurry of bombs landed either side of the ship, causing us to roll alarmingly. Thankfully they’d just been off target, but they could easily have caused heavy casualties and severe damage. From that day, till the time he left the ship, the air recognition officer was always referred to as ‘Friendly-Fire Jay’. All joking aside we lost confidence in him and were quite happy when he was drafted elsewhere some months later.

 

 

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