In memoriam – 3

My father-in-law died a couple of weeks ago, aged 95. This is the story that he wrote for his children and grandchildren a few years ago describing his experiences as a Naval engineer on the aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable during the second world war.

ROY‘S NAVAL CAREER

When war broke out on 3rd September 1939 I wanted to join the Navy, and a few days later I saw a  new recruiting office near Southend Pier so I went in and asked how I would be able to join. A Petty Officer looked at me and said “Well, sonny, you will have to wait until you are 18”. I was then only 17 so I continued with my plan to become an engineer. In those days parents either had to pay the full cost of university education or rely on their children gaining scholarships. In my case scholarships were essential. So, concentrating on mathematics, I took Higher School Certificate (A-Levels) in July 1938 and July 1939, but did not gain any scholarships. At that time I was Head Boy at Lindisfarne College and in late September the school was evacuated to North Wales from the Southend area because of fears of bombing and invasion but here the buildings were not well equipped and there was no laboratory. However, the Southend High School remained at Southend and arrangements were made to transfer me there.

In December 1939 I was awarded a Scholarship at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Then in May 1940 when the German blitzkrieg started the High School was evacuated to Mansfield in the Midlands, but there I took the HSC again and as a result gained a State Scholarship and a Southend Borough Major Scholarship, which in total was enough to see me through Cambridge. There I made friends with Denis Campbell, Stuart Glass and Edward Higham. In addition to lectures we went regularly to tutorials with a great character called (Professor) Archie Browne. He had additional duties as Steward of the College, and was responsible for obtaining food supplies and coal for heating, which was very difficult in wartime.

The course was completed in two years and, with blackouts, air raid precautions and other restrictions, social life was limited. I joined the Naval Section of the Cadet Corps and the Home Guard which took up one or two afternoons each week. I remember one exercise where we had to make a mock attack by night on an airfield some ten miles north of Cambridge. The defenders somehow knew that we would attack the SE corner and mustered there, but we made a mistake and went for the NE corner which was undefended, so we theoretically captured that bit of airfield! We had to march there and back, and the blisters lasted for weeks. On another exercise Cambridge was attacked by the Welch Fusiliers, I remember being knocked on the head and falling into a ditch half full of water. I was considered a casualty and allowed to return to college for a hot bath.

July – September 1942         I applied to join the Royal Navy as an engineer officer and had interviews at the Admiralty including medical examinations. As a result I was accepted and appointed a Probationary Temporary Acting Sub.Lieutenant (E) RNVR, and the next step was to purchase my uniform at Gieves in London, including the purple stripe denoting engineering.

October 1942         I reported to Portsmouth Barracks for four weeks training. I wore my uniform for the first time at Warminster in Wiltshire where we were living, and traveled to Portsmouth without any knowledge of how to make or receive naval salutes in public! This was soon rectified at Portsmouth where I joined twenty other trainees for the course which included instruction in naval customs and traditions, rules and regulations, security, and the all-embracing Kings Regulations and Admiralty Instructions. We also had training in small arms firing and endless square bashing under the eagle eye of Chief Petty Officer Sims, who was as tough as old boots.

November 1942 – November 1943         I was posted to John Brown’s Engineering Works at Clydebank with Donald Townend and Ian Richardson for practical marine engineering training. John Brown’s was a huge organisation which built engines as well as ships, and just after we arrived Indefatigable was launched. This was an amazing sight, seeing 30,000 tons of ship slide down the slipway into the river Clyde. Before the war the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were built on the same slipway.

The three of us were billeted with two or three other naval officers in lodgings at Glasgow where we three shared a room and were looked after by a homely landlady and her staff. Every morning we put on civilian clothes and caught a rickety old tram for a 30 minute journey to Clyde bank. There we worked successively in the Pattern-shop (making wood moulds), Foundry, Boiler-shop (being deafened by riveting), Machine-shop, Fitting-shop, Pipe-shop, Drawing Office and Dockyard. We did actually work, scraping bearings, operating lathes, casting metal, always under the supervision of an experienced workman. During lunch hours we used to climb over Indefat, deafened again by riveting, but we got to know the ship. At that time the yard was completing R class destroyers at the rate of about one every fortnight, and we used to take part in their initial sea trials so gaining experience of firing up boilers and operating turbine plant.

During the summer of 1943 we got to know the permanent RN engineer officers appointed to supervise the fitting out of the ship, including Peter Sandison who looked after the flight deck gear. We were seconded to help the checking of the installation and testing of all kinds of machinery, and in November I was chosen to be officially appointed to Indefat, while the other two went off to other ships.

December 1943 – February 1944         The ship was commissioned on 8th December and taken over by the RN from the yard. After dock trials we steamed down the Clyde and carried out various trials including full power of the 148,000 HP engines, the measured mile speed test (32 knots) off the Isle of Arran, and steering and going astern trials from full ahead. I remember on one occasion the steering gear locked solid at hard-a-starboard while doing full speed. We went round in circles flying two black balls showing we were out of control! Several weeks were spent commissioning and training the crew, taking on stores and ammunition, gunnery practice, testing of radar and flight deck equipment, while some time was spent at sea.

March – June 1944         The first aircraft flew in on 23rd March, and thereafter the squadrons began to arrive. We spent days at sea practising aircraft landings and by the end of June we had a complement of some 75 aircraft including Seafires, Fireflies and Hellcats. When at sea engineer officers kept watch for four hours at a time, the middle watch (midnight to 4 am) and the morning watch (4 am to 8 am) being the worst. During a watch we had to visit each engine room and boiler room, and altogether a total of seventeen machinery spaces where each involved climbing up and down three sets of ladders, as the only passage was via the main deck. The best visit was always to a boiler room, where the Chief Stoker would provide a mug of ‘kai’, a chocolate slab heated in hot water and steam.

In addition each officer had responsibility for a department which included the operation and maintenance of all the equipment in it, and the men carrying out this work. Over the years mine included seven steam generators supplying electricity to the ship, three emergency diesel generators, motor boats, steering gear and auxiliary machinery including the big evaporators for making the ship’s fresh water from seawater. Also every six months each officer took it in turn to run the ship’s laundry for 2000 crew!

At Action Stations if not on watch each engineer officer had a Damage Control section of the ship to look after. Mine was the midships section above one of the engine rooms, and my team consisted of about ten stokers and technicians. We might be stationed there all day with only sandwiches and ‘Spotted Dick’ for lunch!

July – October 1944         Indefat joined the Fleet at Scapa Flow surrounded by battleships, cruisers and destroyers, and spent much time at sea on Russian convoy escort duty going beyond the Arctic Circle. In July we made an attack on the largest German battleship Tirpitz, which was moored in a Norwegian fiord and was always a potential menace to Russian convoys. This operation was called MASCOT and with two other carriers the aircraft carrying out the attack included 44 Barracudas, 18 Hellcats and 12 Fireflies, supported by many Seafires as fighter escorts. The weather was not good with cloud and fog around and although the Tirpitz was damaged it was decided to make another attack in mid-August. Prior to that strikes were made against some installations on the Norwegian coast and then on 18th August we sailed for the second Tirpitz attack called operation GOODWOOD. At this time a valuable convoy was en route to Russia and our job was to protect it from the Tirpitz and Uboats. The convoy did arrive safely.

Indefat aircraft included 12 Barracudas, 12 Fireflies, 12 Hellcats and 32 Seafires, and the ship was accompanied by Formidable, Furious and two small escort carriers, together with destroyers. On the first day one escort carrier was torpedoed and badly damaged, and had to return to Scapa escorted by the second small carrier. Some time later a destroyer was torpedoed and sank, with few survivors. The operation lasted for seven days with the ship at Action Stations most of the time. At one point Indefat seemed to be under serious attack by Uboats, with the ship taking evasive action and shaken by exploding depth charges from nearby destroyers, while it was reported that one torpedo passed under Indefat. GOODWOOD was successful as Tirpitz was hit several times and had to be moved to the port of Tromso for repairs, where she was later sunk by the RAF with their 10 ton Tallboy bombs. Had she remained in the narrow fiord in the lee of the mountains protected by smokescreens they might never have hit her.

Above the Arctic Circle the sun at this time only went below the horizon for a short time, which meant that our ships could be continually kept under observation by German aircraft and Uboats. There were however some fascinating panoramas of sea and sky, and I remember that one evening the ship had to steam into the wind straight for the coast and the spectacular black rugged mountains of Norway loomed up ahead. I vowed that one day I would revisit the area, and so I did with Joan during our Norwegian cruise of 1987.

Our base was Scapa Flow where we returned every few days. Occasionally we went ashore and the main treat was a visit to the NAAFI canteen which provided a large dish of bacon and baked beans. Otherwise we spent time in the wardroom eating, drinking and playing shove ha’penny or bar skittles. One day we played hockey against a team of large and ruthless Wrens, who beat us using their sticks with wild abandon.

In July more engineer officers joined the ship and I knew that one of them would occupy the vacant berth in my double cabin. I anxiously watched them come aboard and liked the look of Brian, and was very glad when he was allocated to my cabin. Then began a friendship which has lasted all our lives.

October – November 1944         We returned to Clydebank in October and made preparations for going to the Far East. Then we steamed down to Portsmouth and went into dry dock for maintenance and cleaning the ship’s bottom. After this we were ready for sailing but before doing so on 16th November the King and the Royal Family came aboard to wish us Good Luck. We were all mustered in our divisions on the flight deck, the King inspected us and then asked for a cup of tea. This caused a flap as all the cooks and stewards were mustered, and it took the duty officer nearly half an hour to find some tea and make it!

December 1944         After leaving Portsmouth we sailed to Ceylon, passing through Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and then across the Indian Ocean arriving at Colombo on 10th December. We stopped off Algiers where our Mess Secretary went ashore and triumphantly came back with a large load of Algerian wine, which turned out to be the most awful plonk! We had Admiral Vian, the fighting Admiral, on board and at Colombo he demanded to be ferried ashore immediately in his Admiral’s Barge. This motor boat arrived on board at Portsmouth just before we sailed and was stowed in one of the hangars, where the engine could not be tested. I was in charge of boats and I insisted that the boat should have a trial run before an official trip. The Admiral was furious and came storming down the Hight deck demanding an explanation, so I stood to attention quaking in my shoes and gave one. He looked me up and down and said “Right, I will give you ten minutes”. Luckily all went well. Strange how one remembers these things!

During the remainder of the month we spent time at Colombo or Trincomalee storing ship, or at sea exercising with other ships of the Fleet. Trincomalee was a beautiful harbour, and I remember Brian and I were thrilled to bring back a pineapple (which we hadn’t seen for years) to our cabin, but when with due ceremony we slit it open it was full of insects!

January 1945         On New Year’s Day we sailed in company with three other carriers, the battleship King George V, and several cruisers and destroyers for air strikes against the Japanese oil refineries at Palembang in Sumatra. The first strike took place on 4 January and about 100 aircraft took part plus 40 Seafires which provided fighter cover. The refineries were damaged but after returning to Trincomalee it w as decided that further strikes would be carried out and they took place on 24 and 29 January. These were major strikes carried out by 144 aircraft for the first and 128 for the second, plus the usual fighter cover. This time the Japanese were well prepared and on several occasions the Fleet came under attack by enemy aircraft. These were fought off by our guns and aircraft, two being shot down close to Indefat. There were many air battles and we lost 41 aircraft together with many of the aircrews. This included several aircraft that were damaged by enemy action and then crashed on deck landing. The worst event was the fate of nine aircrew survivors who had to force land in Sumatra, were made prisoners, taken to Singapore and then later beheaded. The strikes were successful as the refineries produced some 50 of Japanese oil requirements and they were reduced to a standstill, only increasing back to one third capacity by the end of March. After this we steamed south for Australia and crossed the line (the Equator) with King Neptune and his cohorts “coming aboard” on 1st February. I was duly ducked and scrubbed m a makeshift swimming pool.

February 1945         We called in at Fremantle and six days later arrived in Sydney and moored at Wooloomooloo near the Harbour Bridge. The Australians were very hospitable and Brian, Colin and I were “adopted” by the Murray-Jones family with two daughters, Judy and Annabel. They would invite us home for a meal or arrange some tennis or swimming, not that there was much time as we were busy with maintenance and storing for the Pacific. Towards the end of the month we steamed north with the British Pacific Fleet under Admiral Rawlings.

March 1945         After 11 days at sea we arrived at the island of Manus and then went on to Ulithi, another island. This had an enormous harbour and was full of American ships, a total of about 1,400 preparing for the invasion of Japan. Our Fleet then became Task Force 57 operating with the American 3rd Fleet under Admiral Spruance, and consisted of three other Fleet carriers, eleven destroyers and a number of support ships including sloops, frigates, minesweepers, oil tankers and hospital ships. Sailing from Ulithi our first strike took place on 26th March against some of the Japanese islands south of Okinawa where it was estimated that the Japanese had 10,000 aircraft, of which about 4,000 were suicide bombers called Kamikazes.

Then began a series of strike days, each being a long day’s activity for the Fleet, particularly for the ships’ companies of the aircraft carriers. We would go to Action Stations at 0600 and return to Defence Stations at 2000, and periodically a “Flash Red” warning would be broadcast when enemy aircraft approached. Several air battles took place and, throughout the day, the Fleet wheeled and turned in and out of the wind for the carriers to land on and fly off strikes and fighter escorts. When the last aircraft landed on at dusk the air engineering department worked all night to repair, re-arm, and refuel aircraft ready for the next day.

April 1945         On the morning of 1 April we were hit by a Kamikaze which exploded into the flight deck and bridge structure. Because the flight deck had 3″ armour plate the damage was not catastrophic but fourteen of the crew, including the ship’s doctor, were killed and there was a lot of damage to the flight deck barrier gear and bridge communications. I was Damage Control Officer for the area and my team had to remove the casualties and start repairing the damage. I remember the whole area was flooded with hot steam, as the steam-to-ships siren pipework was broken, until I managed to telephone Y boiler room to shut off the master valve.

Peter Sandison’s team did a good job to repair arrester wires and barriers, and the ship was flying off aircraft an hour later, much to the amazement of the American ships and Admirals. The American carriers with light steel decks were very vulnerable and many of their carriers were sunk or badly damaged due to Kamikazes. On 6 and 7 April the Japanese made massive attacks on allied ships with most of them concentrated on American ships to the north of our Fleet. These attacks were made by 600 aircraft, including 355 Kamikazes, and some 380 were shot down but six American ships were sunk and twenty-one damaged. At this time the giant Japanese battleship Yamato came out on a suicide mission and was sunk by American torpedo bombers with a loss of 2,100 men.

Operations continued until the last week of April when our Fleet returned to Leyte island for refitting and oiling, having been at sea continuously for 32 days. By this time sixty support ships had arrived to provide repair and maintenance facilities. During the month I was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant (E) RN and wore my second stripe.

May 1945         On 1st May the Fleet including the carriers Indefatigable, Implacable. Indomitable, Formidable and Victorious left Leyte to resume operations against the Japanese shipping and shore installations, with Action Stations every day except for the odd day when we retired for refuelling by waiting tankers. British ships were essentially designed for Atlantic operations, and consequently there was very little air conditioning to deal with the hot climate of the Pacific, Some of the machinery spaces reached temperatures of 1400 F and almost every day one’s boiler suit could be twice soaked with perspiration. After a few weeks one would suffer from prickly heat and would be painted with purple potassium permanganate, so looking like an Ancient Briton! Sleeping at night on the quarter-deck was the most comfortable time. Food was almost all dehydrated or tinned and a staple of the diet of dehydrated potato served in a variety of ways – mashed, cubed, boiled, roast or fried. There were also plenty of tins of egg powder and powdered milk!

On 4 May Formidable was hit by a Kamikaze which caused considerable damage and fires on the flight deck but the ship remained operational. Indomitable was nearly hit by another Kamikaze which was shot down and crashed some thirty feet off the starboard bow. A few days later Formidable was again hit and fires were started in the hangar, and nine aircraft were destroyed. All through this period the enemy pressed home their attacks with great skill and determination, making good use of cloud cover, decoys and variations of height. All five carriers were hit at least once by Kamikazes, but nevertheless our aircraft flew some 2500 sorties, dropped over 500 tons of bombs and destroyed about 60 aircraft, at a loss of 98 aircraft.

June 1945         At the beginning of June we returned to Sydney for vital boiler maintenance, aircraft repairs and other general refitting. This was a welcome relief after 100 days on the ship at sea and again the Murray Jones were very hospitable, so we enjoyed some tennis and swimming off Bondi Beach. Towards the end of June the Fleet sailed north again and resumed operations in co-operation with the American Third Fleet.

July – August 1945         We carried out strikes against the Japanese mainland for the first time, including airfields and installations in the Tokyo area. The routine developed of 4 or 5 days at Action Stations, then a day’s withdrawal for refuelling, and then back again for more strikes. It was a time of Action Stations, watch-keeping, eating and sleeping in a noisy, hot and tiring atmosphere, with some excitement when enemy aircraft appeared. The Flight Deck was again busy from dawn to dusk, sending off bombers and also fighters to protect the Fleet. Unfortunately many did not return, and several had accidents when landing back on. At this stage the whole of the Japanese mainland from north to south was under attack by allied ships, with the Americans concentrating on destroying the remnants of the Japanese navy. The British aircraft bombed industrial targets including shipping, oil storage tanks, railways and factories, and on two occasions the battleship King George V carried out extensive bombardment with her heavy guns.

On 4th August all ships were ordered to withdraw some 300 miles from Japan, and on the 6th the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and then the second on Nagasaki. Further strikes continued until the Japanese finally surrendered on 15th August. The Fleet remained at sea but on the 25th we were hit by a typhoon. The waves were awesome, I remember standing on the flight deck which was 70 ft above normal sea level, and watching waves much higher than this coming towards me. The ship was rolling 35° from one side to the other, but we survived. Three American destroyers capsized, and we saw one American carrier with a large part of its flight deck hanging over its bows, as though it had received a punch on the nose!

September 1945         The Japanese Surrender was signed on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2nd September, much to our relief. We remained at sea, and with the American Fleet took part in an enormous “parade” of ships outside Tokyo Bay. Then we spent three days in the Bay, while some of our crew went ashore to find and collect prisoners of war and transport them to hospital ships. The famous Mount Fuji is usually covered in cloud but early one morning the tannoy broadcast that it was visible, and I remember a marvellous view of its snow-capped peak.

After this we steamed back to Sydney arriving towards the end of the month, ready for a respite after 73 days of sea time. It was time to reflect on past events, the worst being during July and August when the Fleet lost over 140 aircraft from all causes, by enemy action or deck landings. Since then there has been a lot of discussion about dropping the atomic bombs and their consequences, but to my mind the following reasons justified the decision.

  1. The Americans estimated that there would be around a half-million Allied casualties if the invasion of Japan had taken place later in the year. This did not happen.
  2. About 40,000 British and Allied prisoners of war were kept by the Japanese in horrendous conditions and most would probably not have survived another winter. They were rescued.
  3. The Japanese had some five thousand aircraft and pilots trained as Kamikazes to be used against an invasion fleet, and we would have been in the forefront of this.

October – December 1945         Indefat remained in Sydney and the crew were allowed a lot of shore leave. The Murray-Jones thoughtfully provided a flat where many of us could stay, including Brian, Colin, Peter Fanghanel and others. One highlight was when all the latter including me made up a party to go ski-ing for a week at Mount Kosciusco. We arrived at the snowline and were then told that the chalet was 12 miles away and could only be reached on skis. Some of us, including me, had not skied before but we were told “Oh, that’s OK, today is Tuesday, and there is a tractor going up on Thursday which could pick you up if you are stuck”!

This was a time of hard work and playas supplies were exhausted, the engines needed refitting, the ship needed cleaning and the typhoon had damaged part of the hull so the ship had to go into dry dock. Some of us were seconded to the dockyard to help out with various jobs and I enjoyed the use of a 500cc motor-bike.

We managed another five days on a sheep farm, again with Brian and Colin. The farm was enormous and the family relied on horses to get around. On the first day we were each provided with a horse, but I viewed this with trepidation. So evidently did the horse, as after 15 minutes he turned round and trotted home, and there was nothing I or anyone else could do to stop him! I decided that I would stick to something with a brake and throttle.

January – March 1946         On 20th January we left Sydney for the journey home. Three days later we arrived at Melbourne where we had a tremendous welcome, with a parade led by the Royal Marines hand marching through the streets to the City Hall where the Governor took the salute accompanied by Admiral Vian. We stayed a week and were well entertained, then steamed across the Australian Bight which was unpleasantly rough to call in at Fremantle for a few hours before setting off for Capetown.

We arrived at Capetown after 17 days at sea. Again we were well looked after with a reception at the Governor’s Residence and an expedition to Table Mountain. This was the highlight of the visit, we took the cable car to the top with marvellous views all round and then came all the way down on foot. On 24th February we left Capetown, arriving at Gibraltar on 11 th March. On the way we passed close to St. Helena and Ascension Island. The Duty Officer went ashore and paid his respects to the Governor, who presented him with a live turtle to make soup! The ship’s butcher did not think much of this so when we left the turtle was returned to the sea, and was last seen swimming happily to the shore.

This part of the trip was pleasant and not too hot, every day there were games of deck hockey on the flight deck using a rope grommet instead of a ball. At Gibraltar we stayed for one day and Peter Fanghanel was the only one of our group who managed to go ashore, he came back with a large case of Tio Pepe sherry.

Finally we arrived at Portsmouth on 16th March and berthed inside the harbour, with crowds lining the Southsea promenade and cheering as we went in. We engineers saw little of this, hut we looked forward to a pint at the St. Enoch’s Hotel and then some leave. I think I had about ten days at Westcliff with Mother and Brenda, it was good to see them again after nearly 2½years.

April – October 1946         The ship sailed again on 25th April with 130 “Bush Brides”, who were brides of Australian servicemen and were going to join their husbands to live in Australia. The voyage again was through the Mediterranean and then a brief stay at Aden. Brian, Colin and I went ashore and we asked some joker the way to the local Club for a drink. “Oh” he said “lt’s that white building up on the hill”. So we trudged up the hill, knocked on the front door which was opened by a smart servant who asked what we wanted. We said we would like a drink, to which he replied that this was the Consul’s Residence. Anyway, the Consul was very decent, gave us more than one drink and we went happily back to the ship.

We arrived back in Sydney on 25th May and left again on the 9th June with over 1,000 service personnel due to be demobilised, including some RAF. We also carried 65 tons of food for Britain and about 18,000 gift parcels of food. From Fremantle the engines worked at full power and lndefat made a record-breaking non-stop trip of 21 days to Portsmouth. Then on 29th July we sailed again to Colombo and repatriated another large number of service personnel. The highlight I remember was a visit to Kandy and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, where we were guided by Buddhist priests in their saffron yellow robes.

The last major event was a parade by the ship’s company on 19th September through Holborn in London, the borough that had “adopted” us during the war. As one of the officers with the longest-serving time in Indefat I was placed in the front rank, and there is a photo in our album. After the march we were inspected by the Mayor and then had a luncheon in the Town Hall, where our Battle Ensign flown by Indefat during Action Stations was presented to be hung in the Council Chamber. The demobilisation process was slow, but I finally left the ship and the Navy on 1st October 1946, after a wardroom party the night before! I well remember going down the gangway, walking through Portsmouth Dockyard and then out through the Main Gate, ready to face a different kind of life and world.