Back

Back in Jago's Mansion

Forward

 


My first few weeks of duties in barracks involved sentry work along with various 'Fire Party' watches, it was quite boring compared to what I'd been through during the previous twelve months. Eventually I landed more interesting work; this was maintaining landing craft, which were moored in the dockyard. It's hard to conceive nowadays but even as early as 1942, the allies were beginning to stockpile these craft with an eye to the invasion of Europe.

It was a nice quiet number; we had a P/O in charge of our work party, which consisted of two other A/B's and myself. We actually lived and ate onboard one of the craft, going as far as cooking our own meals; it was like being in a world of our own. During this period we'd be waken from our slumber on regular occasions by the ferocious bombing attacks which were being waged by the Luftwaffe against Plymouth and the surrounding dockyards. One day whilst in barracks I saw for myself the extent of this onslaught, I looked in disbelief at the remains of a large building which had previously housed, Chiefs and Petty Officers. It was in total ruins having received direct hits during a raid. I think I'm correct in stating that almost every man inside the building had perished. The rumour was that once all rescue work had been completed and it was clear that many bodies couldn't be located, the remains of the building were filled with lime to abate the stench of rotting flesh.
The bombing was now reaching a crescendo and one night I had a very lucky escape, we didn't have any washing facilities onboard, this meant to take a shower or do some dhobeying (washing kit) we'd have to cross the dockyard to reach the washrooms. It must have been somewhere in the region of 1900 hours; I'd just showered and was in the process of dhobeying, when the sirens sounded (air raid-warning red). I dropped my clothes and headed for our craft, as I had no-idea of the location of the nearest shelter. Just before reaching the steps leading to our craft there was a deafening explosion as the first bomb went off. This was immediately followed by a second detonation, which was a lot closer than the earlier one.

Call it instinct or whatever you like, but I knew I'd better get my head down; dropping to ground I huddled into the steps. Within seconds there was an unbelievable thud that actually shook the ground. I stayed put and can still remember that I was shaking with fear; even when the all clear sounded it took me a while to gather myself. I didn't find out until the following morning just how lucky I'd been. For the time being I ignored the fires and mayhem all around and made my way back to the craft. At first light I returned to the steps as I'd been ordered to collect some spares from the stores. On approaching the actual step that I'd sheltered on the previous evening I was mortified by what I seen; lying a couple of feet away from the steps was a huge piece of shrapnel. This must have been the thud that I'd heard during the raid; even more worrying was that the step just above were I'd took refuge had a deep gouge cut into it courtesy of the piece of shrapnel. If it had made contact with me, I would have been cut in half.
After this raid I was never to have any other incidents whilst in the docks; and as the months rolled by I have to admit that the mundane duties of shorelife began to bore me. Thankfully in March 1943 I was recalled to barracks, fully expecting to be drafted onto another warship, although it wasn't to be. I was one of a group of six who were sent to the Fleet Air Arm base at 'Crail', Scotland. Once on station our duties appeared to be very peculiar, all we were doing every day was polishing 'tin-fish' (torpedoes), one of the lads happened to mention to the 'Master at Arms' that all other ratings in the base were 'Torpedo men' whereas we were 'Gunnery ratings'. He also found this to be highly irregular, and inside of the hour he returned stating that there'd been a cock-up and we were to leave the base and return to Devonport. I didn't have much time back in barracks for on May 18 I received my final draft; it was to the 'Hunt' class destroyer HMS Pytchley. This small vessel somewhere in the region of 1000 tons was to be my home for the rest of the war. Within a matter of days we left 'Gus' and headed for the East Coast of England, where we'd have a couple of main duties; one was to escort merchant ships, which were passing through shipping lanes in the area. The other was to search and destroy the numerous German 'E' boats, which were always patrolling our eastern shoreline waiting to attack any ships that crossed their path. These vessels were a formidable foe, being extremely fast (50 knots approx.) and manoeuvrable. In addition they carried a deadly cocktail of torpedoes and small arms. 

hmspitchley.jpeg (22262 bytes)

Hunt' class destroyer, HMS Pytchley.

My action station was on No 2, 4-inch gun turret, situated on the quarterdeck, although I'd have been happier to be below decks as the weather was on occasions atrocious. Subsequently the patrols were often cold miserable affairs interspersed with the odd flurry of activity when hostile forces had been sighted. I think the most memorable incident of our times on the East Coast had to be the night of October 24-25, whilst patrolling with several other destroyers. Everyone had their eyes peeled, as we were watching over a large convoy in our vicinity. This would be a very tempting prospect for a squadron of 'E' boats and sure enough in the middle of the night, they took the bait and attacked. 


At the time we had no-idea that this was the largest group of hostiles we were ever to encounter, (I think they numbered somewhere in the region of 30). On sighting our convoy they converged on the swept channel (cleared of mines) and dispersed into several groups, attacking from different directions. Our skipper, Lt Commander Hodgkinson took five on; it was a hell of a scrap. We opened fire and within seconds scored hits on three of them, the others soon withdrew. Then it was the turn of our fellow destroyers, 'Worcester, Ivorcester and Macay' to enter the fray. A group of 'E' boats converged on Ivorcester; she replied by chasing them through smoke and flames; badly damaging one in the process. Worcester scored a direct hit and an 'E' boat blew up, this was followed by Macay who sunk one more with deadly accurate fire. The final blow to the Germans was when two squadrons of our own MGB's joined in. These were under command of Lt Edge and Lt Lightoller both RNVR, they wreaked further carnage on the hapless Germans, moving into position, intercepting the fleeing enemy with clinical efficiency. 
They closed in, almost immediately scoring hits on two boats, which promptly disappeared in a ball of flames. Then Lt Marshall RNVR brought his crafts into the conflict, ramming one 'E' boat and scaring several others away. Lt C.A. Burk RCNVR played out the final act of the battle when he surprised a retreating force of Germans, damaging three with gunfire. The engagement had lasted a total of five hours and was the most exhilarating action I was ever a part of. The result was an overwhelming success for our ships and we never lost one merchant vessel. Our only casualties were onboard two of the MGB's; I've no-idea how many Germans were killed, although one of our gunboats limited their losses by picking up survivors. I have to add that if we hadn't been on station that evening the convoy would have been decimated. 

actionplan.jpeg (34686 bytes)

The overall plan of action on the night of October 24/25

A few days after our tussle with the 'E' boats I had some marvellous news; Teresa had given birth to our first child, a son, we named him Geoffrey. Naturally I couldn't wait to get home and the opportunity unexpectedly arose once Pytchley docked at Immingham for a few days. I was put on watch keeping duties, this meant being on duty for 24-hour shift patterns. During my rest period I decided to get back to Thurnscoe as quickly as possible. It was a complete surprise to Teresa, and she was beaming with joy as I walked through the door. The first time I held Geoffrey is a feeling I still can't properly describe. To be presented with a beautiful baby boy, when only a matter of days previously, I'd been fighting in a life or death struggle with German sailors in the North Sea was an unbelievable change of circumstances. Regrettably I only managed to have a few hours with my new family before returning, reaching our ship at first light. That same afternoon we slipped anchor and set off, rendezvousing with a convoy which was heading in a northerly direction.

A cold shiver ran down my spine when the skipper announced our final destination; it was 'Scapa Flow'. I hadn't been to this far-flung outpost since my days on Repulse, although I was sure that it would still be the most barren, desolate island in creation. The journey towards the Orkneys was uneventful and after being there for a couple of days an accident occurred that could easily have had catastrophic consequences for all onboard. This happened whilst Pytchley was taking on fresh supplies. 

I was with a party that were loading 4-inch main armament shells from the upper deck to the magazine by means of a lift. The shells were of the type known as H.E.D.A. (high explosive direct action). This meant that unlike armour piercing shells, these would explode on the slightest contact with a target. Our problems arose when one of the lads in our party was placing a shell on the lift. The brass cordite canister attached to the shell was covered in grease this made him lose his grip. The shell slipped, falling through the open hatch, and mess-deck, finally ending up in the magazine. Had it exploded I don't think anyone onboard would have survived. Miraculously all we heard was an ominous thud as it came to rest down below. . 

After a few panic ridden moments the Gunnery officer (Mr Balfour) looked at the lad responsible, most probably with a view to sending him down below to retrieve the shell. However the poor sod was totally distraught and could never have carried out any orders given to him. In an instant he turned his attention to me whilst saying "Wynn get down below and retrieve the shell". I didn't get a chance to think of the danger involved and made my way with all haste through the mess deck. Its quite funny to recall that as I was going into the magazine, lads who'd been unloading shells down below were also returning to their station; they'd also beat a hasty retreat when the accident happened. I can't say I blame them.

As I approached the shell, much to my horror the impact stud on its tip was bent over at an acute angle; one false move could easily detonate it. I surveyed the predicament and quickly came to the conclusion that the only way to move the shell with any degree of safety was by hand. Therefore, for the second time in my life, my knees began to knock. I bent down gently lifting it into my arms and up the ladder, through the mess decks and onto the upper deck. The look on our Gunnery officer's face was one of sheer terror as he blurted "Get it over the side Wynn". I didn't need any persuading, as far as I'm aware its still in Scapa (unexploded). All divers take note!

A few days later we left, taking up our usual duties of patrolling the East Coast of Britain, one day whilst doing a sweep towards the Dutch mainland we picked up a strange cargo. A lookout spotted an open boat; we rapidly closed to investigate matters. 
Much to our surprise there were six Dutchmen onboard, they were attempting to escape from Holland and were overjoyed to see our ship. Within minutes we sent them down below with a mug of tea and some dry kit, completing our patrol with the lads onboard and returning to Immingham a day or two later.

Whilst tied up in dock with few duties to perform our skipper decided to give the crew a bit of exercise. He arranged some team games; one of these would be the source of my first real injury of the war. We were split into groups, and then a series of shuttle runs began. We'd have to run the length of the jetty and touch a team-mate standing at the other end; he'd then carry out the same procedure. I was unfortunately waiting to relieve a man mountain called Tom (Tanky) Lomas. I thought he was going a bit too fast on his approach and sure enough he ran straight into me, almost knocking me out. On gathering myself I realised my knee had taken a severe knock, soon afterwards I was carried back onboard and placed in my hammock. 
After a restless night I reported to the sick-bay where the ships Doctor diagnosed torn ligaments in my knee, immediately ordering me into hospital. It took a couple of week's complete rest until I was able to put my foot on the floor; even then the Doctor in charge wouldn't release me for light duties. The aforementioned officer was a fantastic bloke, often spending a couple of hours in the morning playing draughts with the lads. During my fourth week's stay I was showing signs of complete recovery, this was noticed by the Doctor who offered me a wager that still makes me laugh. He said "Right I'll play you at draughts, best out of three. You win your on sick leave tomorrow". I have to add that he never said what would happen if he'd won. It was all square as we went into the final game, whether he intended to lose, I never found out, nevertheless the following day I was on leave. What made matters even sweeter was that he granted me a full two weeks break. 

Since 1939 I'd only ever had leave of that length on one previous occasion; this being when I returned from the Far East. Teresa knew I was in hospital but naturally felt once pronounced fit and well, I'd be back onboard Pytchley before my feet hit the ground. It was a tremendous surprise for her to have my undivided attention for a fortnight and without doubt it was the most relaxing time I had throughout the entire war. Mind you I needed it, in a short while our ship would be part of the greatest Armada ever assembled on our shores, the tide was finally turning.

 

 

 

Back

Forward