Early days



It is a well used phrase that to tell a story properly its best to begin at the beginning and that's where I intend to start my memoirs. I'm sure it will be no different to many tales that can be told of the life of a young man, born into the hostile and often turbulent era of our century. I also imagine that anyone who has begun to read this book would naturally assume that I was born in Yorkshire. Well I am sorry to say they would be wrong to think this. Actually, I am of Welsh origin, being born into a small village in North Wales, by the name of Rhosymedre.

My father akin to countless other men during those times earned his living as a miner. One incident in connection to the pit where he worked will possibly enable the reader to realise that for my entire life I feel that I've lived a somewhat charmed existence. One day I was playing near some disused mine shafts, all of which were supposed to have been blocked up and made secure. I was running; pushing a ball with a stick, when suddenly the ground opened up in front of me; before I had time to blink the ball went plummeting down the shaft, closely followed by the stick. It was the first of many close encounters I was to have with danger in the years that lay ahead. Shortly after this episode, the pit where my father worked began laying men off. Eventually his services were no longer required; we had no option other than to move for greener pastures. So it was that he found fresh employment in another pit, this time it was in Yorkshire at a place called Highgate.

After a couple of years our family moved for the final time, although we remained in the area, settling down in the village of Thurnscoe. Its been my home ever since and I still love the place. I have many fond memories of my childhood days in the village; they are made even sweeter when I recollect a young girl with whom I spent countless hours during the early part of my adolescence. Her name was Teresa Brannon and although at that time in our lives we shared an innocent friendship This would soon alter with the outbreak of war: she was always my main driving force to return home in the dark days that lay ahead.

I attended Thurnscoe school and on reaching 14yrs of age left, almost immediately finding work in the local pit. It was a very hard life and for the first few months the sheer physical effort of working underground meant that most of my spare time would be spent sleeping. Although once adjusted to the life I loved it and things went well for a couple of years. I was comparatively well off, being a single lad, living at home and wanting for nothing. However a recession gradually bit into the mining industry and this began to devastate our village. Families were constantly uprooting, moving to other areas in search of fresh employment.

Work finally became so slack that you wouldn't know if you were to start your allotted shift until an hour beforehand. For if the pit whistle blew, all work would be cancelled for the day. Obviously this meant "no work-no-pay". I put up with this terrible situation for over 12 months, until I just couldn't see any future in mining. Thinking what to do for the best was a decision far in excess of any I'd taken so far with my life. Eventually the only available option showing any hope for future employment was a career in the forces. I didn't really have any difficulty in choosing which sphere of His Majesty's finest to join. The Air Force weren't really looking for people from my type of background; the Army just didn't appeal to me. So I reasoned that as I was always fascinated by the sea, it had to be the Navy. It's a decision l have never regretted.

Once my mind was set I acted positively and the following day set off on a pushbike bound for Sheffield in company with another like-minded lad from our village by the name of Ernie Pressley. After eighteen painful miles on our old boneshakers, we arrived at the navy recruiting offices. Entering the building we reported to this bloody huge Sergeant Marine. His glare felt like it was burning the back of my skull; I almost fainted when he blasted out the words "sit down". He continued, "what are you here for" we said in unison "we've come to join up sir". After establishing our age and various other particulars he informed us that we were too old to join as boys but unfortunately too young to join as ordinary seamen (O D's) as we had to be a minimum age of 17 and a half to enlist.

Suddenly a smile came over his face as he said "don't worry lads all's not lost, you can join up as Marines today". I looked at Ernie and the colour drained from both our faces. Eventually with the memory of being greeted by his booming voice still ringing in my ears, I sheepishly informed him that although his offer was very appealing, we felt it best to wait a few more months and join the navy. With that we turned on our heels and fled before he consumed us with fire from his nostrils.

On reaching the acceptable age I returned to Sheffield on my own, as by this time I'd lost touch with Ernie (I think his family moved out of the area). I sat a series of maths and english tests, finding out before leaving that I'd passed, subsequently they'd be sending for me in the near future. It was an agonising wait of a few months until my papers came through, and they certainly were a lifeline, work in our pit had now curtailed to no more than two or three days a week. At that time there appeared to be little future in mining; although war would soon alter this industry beyond all recognition.

Returning to Sheffield for my final time, I went through a further series of tests and medical examinations, passing all with flying colours. To this day I still feel sorry for one lad who was hell bent on joining up, unfortunately he failed a medical because of boils on his neck. The poor lad was devastated. After all the formalities were over and we'd been allocated our billets, the officers in charge allowed us to have a final night of comparative freedom. It was a great finale as we went to watch Harry Roy's band. I realise these days as I look back on my first time in the company of future budding matelots (sailors) that friendships soon form in all the services. Without question they are the strongest male bonds you ever make. The men I would fight alongside in the not too distant future would leave an impression on me that time has not diminished, I will always cherish their loyalty and trust.

The following morning we caught a Plymouth bound train, arriving at about 1800 hrs that same evening. After a short journey from the station, I entered HMS Drake for my first time. Lining up to some form of attention a three-badged Killick (leading seaman of over 12 years service) addressed our rabble, then marched us down to the dining room. Confronting me was my first meal laid on by His Majesty's navy. I still bloody remember it; we had mashed potato, peas and corned beef, it was terrible.

On digesting this culinary delight, the Killick gave a speech stating "before you came here your Mother was your best friend. Your going to find out now that its your flea bag (hammock,) because I guarantee you that you'll be glad to drag your arses into it at night, once we've finished with you". There must have been about thirty recruits in the mess hall but you could have heard a pin drop. No one laughed murmured or giggled, we knew he wasn't joking. It set me to wondering if maybe I could have just made the worst decision of my life. The previously dire prospect of working a three-day week in Yorkshire suddenly seemed to be quite appealing. With hindsight of over sixty years I'm glad to say I was mistaken. For unbeknown to me at the time, some of the best years of my life were just a matter of months away. After this warm greeting by the Killick, the remainder of our first week was taken up with various mind-numbing chores, from the issuing of basic kit, to being inoculated against all manner of unheard of diseases. Once this initial pampering came to an end, we were left in no doubt that the navy expected total commitment from all their fresh charges during the coming months.

To begin with we had a gruelling six weeks of 'square bashing' and rifle drills, this become really tedious, but it was no different to what I was expecting. I think the main peculiarity with our early weeks in barracks was that we never even saw a warship, let alone stepped onboard one. Without doubt the hardest thing to come to terms with was the discipline; if one lad made a mistake, the whole class would be under punishment.

Shortly after this purgatory we moved onto more defined training, namely basic seamanship. This consisted of tying knots, splicing rope and also stowing sails and anchors. As we progressed things became more intense; everyone had to take turns at the helm of an imitation boat, situated in a small building within the barracks. I suppose it was an early example of apparatus known these days as a simulator, although obviously it wasn't a piece of high tech equipment. Rather just a few pieces of deck planking with an old rudder stuck on the end. Mind you to a young miner from Thurnscoe it was far more exciting than being stuck on my hands and knees scratching at the earth all day. Even with the bleak prospect of war looming nearer I was enjoying the life; every day was different and for the first time in my life I was keen to learn.

The hardest training we did was in the Gunnery School. If I thought the six weeks of square bashing was tedious then this was sheer hell. Being caught doing any indiscretion, warranted punishment that was both, swift and brutal. The instructor would pull you to one side whilst the rest of the class continued the exercise; then he'd make you run up and down a ridge that we knew as "Heartbreak Hill". I never heard of any one punishment in the navy have a more fitting description. It would have been hard enough to run up the bloody thing on your own, but it wasn't that straightforward. Keeping you company, held tightly in your arms (God help you if you let it fall) would be a dummy 4-inch shell. Weighing in the region of 60lb; it was absolute murder. Many a time I felt like falling over and playing dead, but that wouldn't have worked. They'd have simply waited till the following day to continue their torture, time was on their side; it was best just to get on with it or better still, keep your nose clean in the first place.

As for the training we received in gunnery, I loved it; procedures that in later years became second nature were explained in a clear and precise manner. From fall of shot, to elevation and depression and allowing for drift in adverse weather conditions, all the basics were gleaned by eager young minds. I was fascinated, even more so when at about the time of Christmas 1938 our class went onboard the Destroyer HMS Brazen. The purpose of this trip was to be shown fully operational guns in action. The noise was unbelievable as salvo after salvo was dispatched into the horizon. I will never forget that day. I now felt that I was on my way to becoming a matelot.

We had many lighthearted moments towards the end of our initial training period, one is still very clear in my mind, it happened whilst we were onboard the seaplane carrier HMS Albatross. The rain was coming down by the bucketful, but in keeping with the general run of things, our instructors had us up top scrubbing decks. I have to add that from our first day in barracks, one recruit in our class had shown himself to be somewhat of an idiot.

Many a time some of the lads (one in particular) had him carrying out all manner of pointless escapades; this day was to be no different. As the weather was so inclement, everyone had their full wet weather gear on. During a five-minute rest most of us had rolled a cigarette (ticklers) except for the previously mentioned lad. He had no tobacco. The main instigator of many of his lad's jaunts into futility quickly seized on this opportunity.

Whilst standing alongside him he began his taunts, promising a couple of ticklers if he'd jump into the sea. At first he wasn't biting but as the thought travelled round his mind, he began convincing himself, with such quips as " you know, its not that far down if you look at it properly". This persisted for a few minutes; then suddenly without warning he dived overboard. I couldn't believe it, the ship was a tremendous height out of the water and I thought he'd be history. Thankfully in a matter of 30 seconds or so he re-appeared in amongst all the oil and debris that's commonplace in any harbour.

When he was dragged back on dry land the instructors went crazy, even though he was in a terrible state they still barked and screamed at him for quite a while. During this escapade he'd lost most of his kit, along with swallowing all kinds of rubbish, so most unwillingly they relented from their verbal barrage, taking him to the sick bay. He stayed there for the next few days, till pronounced fit but possibly not so well. Once back in our mess the poor sod was given 14 days punishment for (believe it or not) leaving the ship without permission. He was also fined for the kit he'd lost whilst in the process of almost drowning. I never knew what became of him after that, as he never rejoined our class. I would think he was most probably discharged as being unsuitable for service.

In March 1939, I completed basic training going from there into depot; we called it "Jago's Mansion". The barracks were full of fresh recruits, also many reservists were arriving every day. They'd been re-called to active service, as it was clearly only a matter of time until hostilities erupted with Germany. Not long afterwards I got my first draft to the old V and W class destroyer 'Viscount'. It was in the reserve fleet and our job was to get her into something approaching sea-worthiness. After a couple of weeks hard graft we were marched off and put onto another destroyer of the same class, called the "Wallace". No one knew the reason for the swift move, however on slipping anchor, the skipper informed us of our mission. The submarine HM/SM Thetis was in severe difficulties in the Bay of Liverpool; we had orders to proceed at full speed to help with rescue operations.

This warship had certainly seen better days, in fact all her class had their origins in the First World War and were all way past their sell by date. It must have taken somewhere in the region of 12-16hrs to steam to the rescue area, all the way up there my heart was in my mouth. As this old tub was grunting and groaning, vibrating and rattling to such a degree that I thought it was literally going to fall apart. Much to my amazement she held together. On approaching the pending disaster the sight that befell my eyes was beyond belief. Even the most hardened matelots onboard where sickened at the horrific situation placed before them.

The Thetis was partially submerged with her stern looming helplessly out of the water, all that could be seen, as means of support was a single rope from the one tug that had arrived before our ship. We were told that the vast majority of the sub's crew were still inside. More distressing news came from the skipper of the rescue tug. He reported that on occasions they'd heard tapping noises coming from inside the hull. Much to our dismay, within a couple of hours of reaching the scene we were ordered to leave and steam to Liverpool.

To this day I've no idea why we went there in the first place, as no attempt was made by our ship to assist in the operation. I also found it alarming that at the time of our departure, the sole vessel conducting rescue operations was the same tug that was over the site when we initially arrived there.

The rest of the story of the ill-fated Thetis makes gloomy reading. Shortly after we left, a Flotilla of Tribal class Destroyers arrived, having travelled at full speed from Weymouth. A series of rescue operations were attempted, all to no avail. I believe that when the disaster first occurred, Captain Oreham (who was sailing in an advisory capacity) in company with Lieutenant Woods and two other ratings managed to escape. As for the remaining 99 left onboard they all sadly perished. I can't begin to imagine the ordeal those poor men went through. The disaster caused widespread grief throughout the country, although this didn't stop our Government from salvaging the boat and after all necessary work was completed she was re-named 'Thunderbolt'. Sadly her bad luck continued, for during the course of the war she was sunk in the Mediterranean.

On reaching Liverpool we picked up fresh supplies and carried out some necessary repairs to the old tub. Returning to Devonport we found the entire area teeming with warships, at the time I was unaware that my destiny lay with a truly beautiful battlecruiser I hadn't yet set eyes on. For the time being I had a few months of shore duties, the only benefit of this was that I had regular home leave. On one of these occasions I'd just arrived back in Thurnscoe and was walking up the street to my parent's house, when I crossed the path of the young lady whom I spoke of early on in my tale, namely Teresa Brannon. She'd left school and was working at a munitions factory in Doncaster, it was at that moment our relationship began and from that day on, we were never to lose touch.

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HM/SM Thetis lying helpless in the Bay of Liverpool.