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HMS Manchester, a Town class light cruiser, built by Hawthorn Leslie at Hebburn and launched in April 1937, she had a crew of 750. Her first action was in the Norwegian Campaign in 1940. In 1941, Manchester,saw action in the battle of Cape Spartivento, when she and other navy ships engaged an Italian cruiser squadron. HMS Manchester sailed with the Arctic and Malta convoys in 1941–1942, enduring harsh conditions and enemy action.
During Operation Pedestal, HMS Manchester scuttled by her crew on the 13th of August 1942 having been badly damaged by two Italian torpedo boats off Kelibia, Tunisia, North Africa whilst escorting a convoy to Malta. 28 officers and 375 men landed on the Tunisian coast and were held by the Vichy French. British ships rescued 3 officers and 142 men from the water.
On his return to Britain, Captain Harold Drew, was summoned to take part in an enquiry into the sinking. At the end of this "enquiry" he was informed that he was in fact being charged with negligence by a court martial. He was found guilty, and was reprimanded, never commanding a ship again. The Admiralty believed that the ship was still navigable and capable of reaching a neutral port. A fact disputed by the crew who believed the Captain had made the correct decision to save the men and prevent the top secret radar equipment from falling into enemy hands.
List of those who served on HMS Manchester during the Second World War
- James Adams Read his Story.
- Ldg Stoker John Norman Angus (d.23rd Jul 1941) Read his Story.
- Leonard Blackman
- Capt. Henry Hugh Bousfield Read his Story.
- John Thomas Brown Read his Story.
- Lt Cmdr. Bryce Clinkard Read his Story.
- WO. Arthur Kitchener Coulson Read his Story.
- Ldg Stoker James Cross Read his Story.
- Robert Cunningham
- Ray "Taff" Davies Read his Story.
- Capt. Harold N. Drew DSC. Read his Story.
- Ldg Seaman. Durnford
- Sub Lt. (E) Leonard Musgrave Frankland (d.13th Aug 1942) Read his Story.
- Daniel Gillespie Read his Story.
- Stoker 2nd Class. Norman Greaves (d.20 Oct 1942) Read his Story.
- Sidney Guest Read his Story.
- Ron Hall
- Cmdr Hammersley-Johnston
- Chief Petty Officer Norman Edward Harris Read his Story.
- Able.Sea. Reginald Victor Harrison Read his Story.
- Ord. Seaman Roland Hindmarsh Read his Story.
- Marine. Bernard Charles Jarman BEM.
- PO Stoker Donald Jenson Read his Story.
- "Joner" Jones
- Gunner Thomas Joseph Lane
- Seaman Lankester
- PO. Sidney Charles Albert Lansley Read his Story.
- Augustine Joseph "Jack" Lynch Read his Story.
- Leonard McDonald
- Able.Sea. Norman Milnes Read his Story.
- Jack Mitchell Read his Story.
- Ldg. Signalman Leonard Henry Mitton (d.11 Nov 1942) Read his Story.
- CPO. Samuel Nixon Read his Story.
- Herbert Annesley Packer Read his Story.
- Stoker 1st Class Edward Pykett Read his Story.
- Pte. William Ranner Read his Story.
- Lt. Leslie Gustave Read Read his Story.
- James Patrick Roache Read his Story.
- Radar Operator George Louis Robertson Read his Story.
- Able Sea. Ronald Rowland Read his Story.
- Alan Smith Read his Story.
- Chief Mechanic Charles Smith (d.13th Aug 1942) Read his Story.
- Ldg Stoker Charles Ernest Spooner Read his Story.
- Marine Thomas Stubbington (d.23rd Jul 1941)
- Lt Cmdr. Eric Cole Sutton Read his Story.
- K. R. Taplin
- Bernard John Taylor
- Ord.Tel. Alan Charles Thomas Read his Story.
- Petty Offcr. Toop
- Of.Tel. Kenneth Edgar John Trott Read his Story.
- Stoker 1st Class. Herbert "Bert" Turner (d.14th Aug 1941) Read his Story.
- Kenneth George Uttley Read his Story.
- Ldg. Steward Allan Walker Read his Story.
- Chaplin Donald Bruce Walker Read his Story.
- AbleSea. George Henry Wall Read his Story.
- Walter William "Knocker" White Read his Story.
- Cmdr. Sidney Morgan "Sam" Whitteridge
- Harry Wilmer
- Alan Wilmot
If you have any names to add to this list, or any recollections or photos of those listed, please get in touch.
Sidney Guest HMS Manchester
Sidney Guest joined the Navy aged 18. He served onboard HMS Manchester during Operation Pedestal, when the ship was torpedoed he was identified as 'essential personell', and transferred to HMS Pathfinder.
In 2006 he was made an honorary citizen of the Maltese capital of Valletta in a newspaper article published in the Dorset Echo at the time he said: "In many ways it was a nice surprise, but it brought up a few things which I would rather forget. "I was quite moved when I received it. There are a couple of small incidents I recall that still upset me. I was on action stations on the bridge the whole time. One colleague nearby was firing a gun at German bombers overhead when his gun got stuck. The plane was bearing down on us but I managed to clear the ammunition for him, and he shot it down just in time. Some of the memories are a bit vague, but other parts I remember clearly. I will never forget being on that deck, drowned in seawater. We had plenty of near-misses, and of course I was scared. But I was so busy, I had a job to do and got on with it. We were awake solidly for five days and four nights. How we kept our eyes open and wits about us all that time, I'll never know. I remember longing to get to Valletta to put my head down, but we never got there. Once the merchant ships were in, we got out of there as fast as we could.
Sub Lt. (E) Leonard Musgrave Frankland HMS Manchester (d.13th Aug 1942)
Leonard Frankland was 23 years old when he was killed during a torpedo attack on HMS Manchester off the coast of Tunisia. He had graduated from Liverpool University and is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
Herbert Annesley Packer HMS Manchester
Herbert Packer was the captain of HMS Manchester from the 13th of April 1940 until the 31st of May 1941.
Capt. Henry Hugh Bousfield HMS Manchester
Hugh Bousfield was captain of HMS Manchester from the 17th of January 1938 until the 13th of April 1940.
Ord. Seaman Roland Hindmarsh HMS Manchester
I served as an Ordinary Seaman on HMS Manchester, a medium cruiser, from April to August 1942. My action station was on the centre gun of A turret, and my cruising station on one of the port side 4-inch guns.
Not many days after our return from the Arctic we read the tell-tale signs again: no more shore leave. Provisioning ship and taking on water soon followed; ammunitioning wasn't needed, for we hadn't fired a shot while up north. So one summer evening we found ourselves steaming once more past the boom defence vessel in the southern entrance to the Flow. On the messdeck the rumours had already started. It was Iceland again, to stop the German raider from breaking through. But we noticed that the ship's head was pointing resolutely west; the green headlands of the north of Scotland moved serenely by. So we were going to meet an important convoy from half way across the Atlantic (where the Canadians and now the Americans too handed over to the British) and escort it up through the Denmark straits and on to Murmansk; it was carrying aid to the Russians direct from America. But this theory weakened as the bows turned to the southward, and somewhere off Ireland we rendezvoused with an aircraft carrier, escorted by two destroyers — also headed south. Old hands identified her as HMS Furious: what could this signify?
The four ships ploughed the long blue Atlantic swell in a southerly direction so steadily that new rumours were bound to spring up. We were going to accompany this carrier round the Cape, to join up with Navy units operating out of Bombay, so as to harass Japanese shipping in the Indian Ocean. That meant we would be putting in at Simonstown to refuel, the old lags winked, and so we would enjoy South African hospitality and the bright lights and the girls of Cape Town. Or the carrier might carry on, and leave us there to carry out anti-raider patrolling in the South Atlantic, just as cruisers had done earlier in the war, and seen the Graf Spee to the bottom.
The proliferation of rumours, with scarcely a shred of evidence in their support, at length irritated me so much that I decided to launch one of my own. A lone Free French sailor had joined us shortly before leaving Scapa; I had talked with him from time to time - a tiny man, with a powerful Bordeaux accent. His nationality gave me the idea of our having a French-speaking destination - so I determined it should be Madagascar. One afternoon I was standing at the guardrail beside another sailor from another messdeck, a member of another four-inch gun crew. Looking out to sea, I quietly told him that a steward in the Navigating Officer's cabin had seen a chart of the island of Madagascar open. I gave it as my view that the pilot wouldn't be studying the seas around Madagascar without some good reason, so presumably that was where we were bound. He listened intently without comment; I shifted away to rejoin my gun.
Ten minutes later I was sitting at my post at P2 when I noticed groups of sailors forming and splitting up and reforming, evidently passing information and discussing it. One of my gun crew came up to me and stood close. 'Heard the latest buzz then?' he said quietly, leaning over. 'The Indian Ocean, you mean?' 'No - well, I don't know. But it's Madagascar.' 'How d'you know?' 'It's from the pilot, they say.' 'Well, he should know ...' 'Where's Madagascar, then, Lofty?' 'It's the other side of the Cape ... in the Indian Ocean.' 'Why would we want to go there?’ 'Stop the Japs, perhaps ...' 'Yeah ... maybe. If they took it, they could cut off our route to India - ' ‘And to the Eighth Army too.' 'Right, so they could ... Suppose it makes sense then ...'
At that moment the TS claimed my attention on the headphones, for a routine report that we were all present and correct. This enabled me to hide my jubilation at the success of my little scheme. By the end of the watch the word Madagascar was on everyone's lips. I felt that my contempt of messdeck rumours was completely justified. But there were doubters, and attempts were being made to trace the information back to source. And when no officer's steward could be found to substantiate the story of the Madagascar chart, suspicion focussed heavily on me. Accosted by my messmates I had to admit the fraud. Reactions were mixed, from resentment and shoulder-punching to amusement and even admiration at my having taken in a considerable part of the ship’s company.
Any lingering beliefs that we were bound for southerly latitudes were dispelled when, quite suddenly, we turned east and increased speed. Most of the older hands now declared that we were headed for Gib - no sailor would risk losing respect by saying the name of Gibraltar in its full form. And Gib might just mean that we were going to enter the Mediterranean. The earlier light-hearted mood, envisaging entertainment in southern cities unaffected by the black-out or wartime shortages - such as Cape Town or Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro - was swiftly replaced by one of earnestness, streaked with anxiety. For the Axis powers had established naval ascendancy throughout much of the Mediterranean, and controlled the sealanes from Italy to Libya so strongly that the island of Malta was severely threatened, suffering daily attacks from the air and running dangerously short of supplies and ammunition.
One evening as dusk fell we caught sight of some yellowish hills to the south-east: my first sight of Africa. It was past midnight when we nosed into Gib harbour, which was seething with activity, though under diminished blue lighting. In the humid warmth of an August night, cruisers and destroyers were taking on fuel and water, as were a number of merchant ships. From the dockside, blue faces were turned up to study us, with the detached fascination accorded to those going out to face death. Those looks told us for sure that we were bound for the Med, in spite of much of it having been virtually closed to British surface vessels over the past year, though our submarines, based on Malta, had sent a significant tonnage of Axis shipping to the bottom.
Taking on fresh water and fuel took much longer than normal; the confusion inside Gib harbour was heightened by the shortage of space and the number of fleet units to be serviced. Dawn had already broken when we assembled, again very slowly, a few miles from the harbour entrance, to the east of the Rock. It stood out greyish-white in the bright morning light; its crest cut the blue sky with an aggressive clarity quite new to me. I felt the open exposure of all the ships, manoeuvering to get into position, as ominous. Everything could be seen from the Spanish shore, and reported to the enemy. No-one was in any doubt as to which side the Spanish fascists favoured.
Mediterranean convoy: Days One and Two
Eventually, after much raising and lowering of flags, and vigorous semaphore signalling, the convoy of 14 merchant ships, with an escort of five cruisers and a large number of destroyers, got under way. If there remained any lingering uncertainty about whither we were bound, that was dispelled soon after by an announcement from the Captain on the ship's tannoy: we were going to relieve Malta, the proud little island that had stood athwart the German route to North Africa and refused to yield to enemy assaults. Earlier efforts, in February and June, had been slighter in scale, and made the mistake of using a slow convoy speed; little had got through. The merchant ships with us now were larger and faster, each capable of as much as 14 knots. That brought Malta within five days' sailing time. Moreover, for part of the trip we would be accompanied by heavier units of the fleet, including aircraft carriers to give us air cover. The convoy itself would steam in four lines, each line headed by a cruiser leading three or four merchantmen. There would be two rings of destroyers, an inner and an outer. Given vigilance, there was every chance of our getting through with little loss. We could expect to have to fight off attack from the air, the surface and from submarines; but the combined firepower we could muster was fearsome. There was no doubt but that we would give a good account of ourselves. The success of the enterprise, and Malta's survival, depended on the watchfulness and fighting spirit of every man on board each of the many ships in the convoy. This time we were out to teach the Axis a lesson they wouldn't forget.
Morale rose at once — and spirits even more when the massive grey bulk of battleships and aircraft carriers grew on the horizon and took up position a few miles astern. Fledgeling sailors listened attentively as old hands agreed among themselves that this was the strongest convoy escort they had ever seen gathered in the Med, and that these merchantmen could outsail by four or five knots the few ships that had made up the February or June convoys, neither of which had managed to bring significant aid to the island. Such was the confidence engendered that we actually wished for a squadron of enemy planes to appear in the sky so as to let us give them a pasting, or for an Italian fleet to blur the horizon with trails of smoke so that we could give chase, engage them in battle and send them to the bottom, letting the convoy steam on unscathed for Malta.
Our belligerence was however soon to turn into impotent fury. Alerted no doubt by an agent of the Germans in Algeciras, a Spanish drifter had set sail from Malaga or thereabouts, and shaped her course to intersect with the convoy. She was first noticed as a smudge of smoke on the port bow. Our initial hope was that this was an Italian cruiser about to fall into our trap. But as the stubby superstructure and short hull rose above the horizon, we knew she could be no warship.
Excitement dropped, but we kept her in view. We watched with disbelief as she sailed inside the outer destroyer screen and then with dismay when, penetrating the inner screen too, she impudently hove to just ahead of the two cruisers leading the middle lanes of the convoy. A large Spanish flag fluttered prudently at her stern. As we swept past her, we could see that crew-members were stationed on either side of her wheelhouse, openly taking note of all that the convoy and its escort consisted of. At this effrontery we exploded in anger, asking each other indignantly why we didn't blow her out of the water at once: she was clearly a spy ship in the service of the enemy. For all we knew, the crew might be German, masquerading as Spanish seamen. But the bridge made no move. The little vessel rode the successive wakes of the cruisers and the merchantmen, lingered to record also the heavy units astern, and then made all haste for the North African shore, presumably to land in one of the Spanish enclaves on the coast, and from there transmit the vital information about our convoy's composition and escort strength to the Axis powers.
The night passed quietly. The summer temperatures of air and water in the Med gradually heated the cold metal of the ship, and we dispensed with all clothing other than a singlet and underpants, plus our working overalls, normally turned down to the waist and tied there by knotting the sleeves. We wore plimsolls without socks, and of course had our anti-flash gear handy for gun drills or action when it came; most of us left our caps in our messdeck lockers. The warm sun, its heat mitigated by the breeze out at sea, kept us out on deck a lot of the time, even when we were not on watch at the four-inch guns.
It was on the second day, I believe, that action began. The first enemy presence appeared very high in the sky: an Italian reconnaissance plane, checking up on the convoy's position and current composition. The aircraft was above us before we noticed it - to the chagrin of look-outs on watch - and was greeted with a vituperative barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the cruisers, that must have been almost useless given the plane’s altitude. So we had failed in our first engagement.
The second was much more unexpected. Some sailors were standing at the port side of the Manchester, by the guardrail, looking out across the intervening half-mile of water between us and the cruiser HMS Nigeria, when one of them saw a shape appear in the water not two hundred yards away. It became a periscope standard, then a whole submarine. At once the sailors raised their voices, yelling up at the bridge. Suddenly the submarine realised its error and began submerging, blowing all its tanks. The command 'Independent fire' was given, but the submarine was so close that few guns could depress far enough to get the sub in their sights. Only the Oerlikons, meant for anti-aircraft combat and firing light shells shaped like big bullets, succeeded in peppering the water round the sub's conning tower with a few rounds before she sank out of sight. By now two destroyers from the inner screen were racing up, but in the confused underwater noise created by so many propellers on all sides, they must have found it hard to locate the sub. I doubt whether any claim of a sinking was made, even though we heard the dull boom of depth charges exploding astern for some time.
We relieved our embarrassment at having failed to react quickly enough to the submarine by laughing about the enemy skipper's shock on realising he had surfaced right in the middle of an enemy convoy. But later that afternoon there was no laughter on our faces when, after another submarine alert, we looked astern to see one of the aircraft carriers, HMS Eagle, listing heavily to one side. Planes were sliding off her flight deck into the water. As she disappeared into the haze with increasing distance, she was evidently sinking. Destroyers had rushed to her aid and were depth charging at a distance. They dared not do so too close to the stricken carrier, for men were already swimming in the water nearby, and the explosion of a depth charge even several hundred yards away is felt in a swimmer's stomach like a kick from a horse, and can stun you with pain - or at lesser distances kill.
The holiday cruise atmosphere, always tenuous, vanished totally. We were witnessing an act of war; undoubtedly some men had died, and many were swimming for their lives. 'Poor bastards!' Coates said quietly at my side, over and over again. I thought of the sailors still clinging to the carrier. Now she might be heeling over so far that they could only drop off the flight deck many feet into the water below. At any moment she might turn turtle, her massive weight smashing into the swimmers, and burying the carley floats that had not been able to paddle clear. It was the turmoil and confusion that assailed me: the sudden transformation of an intricately organised fighting machine into a chaotic liability, death and dying within her and all around - a disaster area.
The loss of the carrier sharpened our vigilance remarkably. We were glad when night fell and enveloped us; there was no moon. The following morning when we looked astern, the sea was empty: the battleships and the remaining carrier had left us. We felt betrayed. Now we had to carry the whole load: the four cruisers leading the merchantmen; the anti-aircraft cruiser bringing up astern, weaving across the tail of the convoy; and the escorting destroyers, still prowling, lean and hungry and ominous. It must have been that day that we suffered our first air attack. It took us to action stations, even though it was a high-level affair. The bridge wanted the action crews of all anti-aircraft armament closed up, even the six-inch guns, available only for low-level attack. I recall we were stood down from time to time, but ordered to remain close by for rapid response. There were several alerts, and from inside the turret we could hear the sharp explosions of the four inch guns amidships, as well as the coughing recoil of the Bofors on B turret.
When each action was over, we would spill out to see what the results had been. If any enemy aircraft had been shot down, we were too late to see the evidence. But we looked long at the two or three merchantmen that dropped astern that afternoon; at least one of them had thick black smoke rising from amidships. Eleven left; eleven ships to relieve Malta with!
Days Three and Four
Taking a break after an air attack on the third day, we were out on the fo'c'sle when a sailor right up in the bows on the starboard side let out a yell: 'TORPEDO! TORPEDO!' Stupidly, we rushed over to the side to see. Being nearest to the guardrail on the port side, I peered into the blue water of the Med. Suddenly I saw a thick stream of bubbles appear near our port bow, and trace a rapid path away from us, almost at right angles. 'Gawd! That was close!' a sailor near me muttered. It was the bubbles rising from the compressed air driving the torpedo that I had seen. But as we looked we saw that the torpedo was making into the centre of the convoy; our station was on the right flank of the lines of merchantmen. We turned to the bridge. 'TORPEDO!' we yelled in unison. A hand waved from up aloft, and a voice came down through a megaphone: 'Keep a look out for others!' We rushed over to the starboard side: somewhere out there a submarine was lurking. But the surface was broken into small waves, and the sunlight glinted fiercely on them. It was impossible to make out a torpedo track until it was too late.
We ran back to the port side, to see what was happening. That torpedo was running free among the ships. No doubt a signal had been hoisted, to warn the other ships of the danger, but they in their turn could not espy the track of bubbles. We however could. Lining our eyes along the track left on the surface, we estimated that it was making directly for the cruiser Nigeria, that it was on an intercepting course. We began shouting and waving our arms, wildly. Some sailors on the foredeck of that cruiser saw our gesticulations, but at that distance could make nothing out of what we meant. Fascinated and horrified we watched as the track made for the next cruiser in line.
All at once a plume of water shot up two hundred feet into the air, from just aft of the bridge of the Nigeria, obscuring the superstructure. Sailors on her fo'c'sle seemed to tumble about, several falling on their hands and knees. As the spray began to subside, the noise of the explosion struck the Manchester's side, having travelled underwater to reach us. Already the Nigeria was slipping back, losing way, and within a minute she had dropped well astern. Two destroyers were circling her and laying a smoke screen to prevent the submarine skipper from putting another torpedo into her.
We felt the Manchester alter course sharply to starboard. 'TORPEDO ON THE STARBOARD BOW!' was being shouted over and over again. The ship righted herself almost as suddenly. We must be making a reciprocal course, parallel to that of the torpedo, but in the opposite direction. That way we would present the smallest breadth of target area. 'STAND BY!' 'BEND YOUR KNEES!' Action stations sounded at that moment, and we rushed for the turret door, unsure whether in the next moment the torpedo might not strike us too, and send us sprawling like ninepins. Inside the turret the starboard gun crew were talking excitedly. 'Just twenty feet there was between!' 'Straight down the starboard side, she went!' 'A second later for the turn, and we'd have bought it!' 'Yeah, aft somewhere...' In the enclosed space of the turret, we sweated. Was another torpedo on its way? How many subs were out there, loosing off tinfish at us? Why hadn't the destroyers picked them up? 'There's a merchantman gone,' announced the midshipman, his eyes glued to the binocular pieces. 'And another enveloped in smoke.' We listened in silence, still much more concerned about the torpedo that might be making for us, rather than about the merchant seamen in the water.
For now we were a prime target, the largest warship left in the convoy. I felt the selfishness of personal fear had permeated the turret, and sensed it in myself as well. I didn't want to find myself in the midst of an explosion that would lift A turret, still sealed and intact, sheer from its shaft, and heave it over the ship's side. An image of the turret, plunging into the water and plummeting down into the depths, taking us all to the grave, had taken hold of my mind, and would not be exorcised.
'The convoy is re-assembling,' the middie told us, swinging his periscope around in a steady sweep. 'Dido' - that was the anti-aircraft cruiser - ' is coming up to take the place of the Nigeria. Can't see the Nigeria at all now, much too far astern.' When finally we were allowed out on deck again, we could count only nine merchant ships. We noticed too that the convoy had for the first time taken to zigzagging to defeat submarines trying to manoeuvre into attacking positions; they were slower than the convoy and so had to lie in wait on what they hoped would be our course. But as the zigzags were highly irregular, and the pattern could itself be changed by flag hoist at any time by the Admiral of the convoy - now aboard the Cairo - we felt that the subs had less chance of securing hits. There was one major disadvantage, however: zigzagging took time, and so it would take us longer to get to Malta.
Moreover, with each air attack the convoy now scattered; ships in line present a much easier target for bombers, and had less freedom to fire than when sailing independently. The merchantmen, too, found that their main defence lay not in the two oerlikons mounted on either side of the bridge, but in swift and sudden changes of course, and for this they needed plenty of searoom to move about in without risking collision. Thus, following each air attack — and there could be four or five in a day - the convoy lost more time in reassembling from all the various directions into which the individual merchantmen had dispersed. None of this operation could be done at more than 14 knots, so skippers who had chosen to escape from the attacking squadrons by turning and shaping a course to the north or south kept the others waiting while they made up the distance again.
One vessel, a tanker called the Ohio, had been so badly damaged in her engineroom that she had dropped right behind. She was still making her way independently, headed east with a destroyer escort, but at only 5 knots! She was carrying fuel for ships and planes on Malta; any torpedo or well-placed bomb would turn her into a huge sheet of flame. (In the event she plodded on, suffering many air attacks, but finally limped under tow into Valetta harbour, pitted and buckled, yet just afloat and with her cargo intact, to the delight of the Maltese.)
At the time of the torpedoing of the Nigeria, we on the Manchester had been at action stations for a total of about twenty-four hours. In A turret we slept when we could on the warm steel plates, or dozed out on deck between air attacks. Food came to us on trays: cold sandwiches and purser's kye - the thick cocoa always available in the galley. On that we were expected to keep our bodies fit and our morale up. But the strain was beginning to tell. We were now well into our third day in the Med. The fleet strength we had set out with had now shrunk to three cruisers (one medium and two light) and a number of destroyers. Over a third of the merchantmen had gone. There were few jokes being passed round, and those were weak and half-hearted. Most of us were wrapped in a cocoon of weariness and anxiety, hoping we would be spared, but well aware that the most dangerous stretch lay ahead - the passage between Sicily and North Africa.
During the next night we had to stand to more than once, I seem to remember. We were able to snatch rest in fits and starts only. Sleeping twenty-one men in the narrow confines of a turret meant that you lay down where you could, and on your side. There wasn’t room to lie on your back. You even had to use the protruding horizontal flange of each of the two girders ran fore and on either side of the centre gun. On this smooth six-inch wide surface of steel I lay on my side, hooking my fingers round its edge to prevent myself from slipping off on to the men pressed together on either side of me. When we had to stand to for an alert during the night, and struggled to our feet, uncertain as to what kind of threat faced us this time, we would look into each other's faces and read anxiousness holding down fear, a preoccupation with one's own safety above all, and a readiness for the panic dash to the turret door if the ship was badly hit. Amongst the crew of the turret were a couple of Canadians from Cape Breton island; they would try to keep each other's spirits up with a remark now and then in a weird form of French. But for the most part we just stood at action stations, bodies acheing with fatigue, in a dejected silence.
The fourth morning found the convoy still unchanged from the evening before; no ship had succumbed during the night. As the hours went by without air attack, a little of our former courage returned. The spell free from standing-to had enabled the bridge to release the cooks, who had prepared a strong broth to go with the sandwiches; with warm food inside our bellies, conversation began once again to pick up. If we could make it through the gap, we told each other, we would soon be within radius of air cover from Malta. There were still the enemy subs, of course ...
It was as if the Italians, and the Germans too, had overheard us. Within an hour the alarm for air-attack sounded, and we closed up to our guns. The midshipman, always prepared to tell us the best and the worst, announced that squadrons of bombers were coming in, in large numbers, from two directions, low level as well as higher. As we started swinging to fire six-inch shrapnel shells in amongst the former, he announced dive-bombers too, Stukas. Within seconds the Manchester was shaking violently as the whole of her armament was engaged: the heavy guns and the four-inch firing at the waves of bombers, and the multiple pom-pom and Bofors and Oerlikons raking the sky around the Stukas.
'Train right!' came a sudden command. This meant we were on independent fire, each turret firing separately: the co-ordination had become impossible, for there were too many attackers. 'Low elevation, short fuse!' called the midshipman. 'Target nine torpedo bombers, sea level. Fire at my command!' The gun captains signalled ready to fire to Toop. 'All guns ready to fire, Sir!' 'They're still coming on, straight for us ... nine hundred yards … eight hundred ... they're rocking, someone else's shells ... seven hundred ... stand by ... FIRE!’ The guns blasted off their shells. Had the torpedoes been dropped? The cruiser slewed violently to starboard, but the midshipman kept his periscope on bearing. 'A huge explosion ... bits of aircraft hurled out from it ... the smoke is clearing ..there's nothing there ...they've just d-d-disappeared!' The seconds ticked by ... Still no explosion in our own hull. We must have escaped. There was a faint cheer, and then we were punching each other with relief. The attack continued, but less intensely, as we could tell from the sound of our armament, and then broke off.
The bridge spoke up, addressing us over the tannoy, and congratulating us all on the way we had fought off the heavy attack. In spite of its strength, and the attempt to disrupt our defences, only one merchantman had been hit, and not at all badly. Otherwise we were intact. It was thought we had brought down a large number of aircraft, but reports were still coming in. Enemy aircraft losses since the beginning of the convoy were now estimated at 60 plus. And we had sunk two submarines for sure, perhaps more.
Our spirits rose again … and stayed up. There may have been further attacks that day but I don't remember them. By the evening we were much nearer the gap, and due to pass through under cover of night - the fourth of our passage through the Med. By daybreak the next morning we should be well on our way across to Malta. As night fell, we were talking with each other much more freely, and even beginning to think of steaming into Valetta harbour, and of sleeping and eating our fill, catching up on all that we had missed. Once more, after hot soup and sandwiches, we manoeuvered ourselves into our cramped dozing positions on the turret floor, and slept in short snatches, or lay awake, counting the minutes, almost the revolutions, that took us closer to safety.
At about one a.m. we were stood to. The middie said he could see shell bursts at a distance, low down. This couldn't be torpedo bombers again, surely. Within seconds our guns were ready to fire, the turret was being swung this way and that, as if searching in the night for the target. 'E-BOATS!' shouted the midshipman, as the guns suddenly crashed into action. A surface target at last for the guns to engage - motor torpedo boats! We loaded and fired, in furiously rapid succession; then a lull. We panted, sweating in the warm confined space. 'Here they come again!' The guns fired repeatedly, salvo upon salvo. Then a brief lull. 'Starboard gun breech getting stiff, Sir!’ Durnford, the gun-captain, reported. ‘Ordnance artificer at the double!' The middie ordered. The gun mechanic took one swing at the breech, glanced at its rifling, turned to the midshipman and shook his head. 'Starboard gun check, check, check!' Moments later we were firing away from the centre and port guns only, at a tempestuous rate of load and fire.
As I bent down for the next cartridge case, the turret floor suddenly thrust upwards, rocking me violently. An enormous and deep explosion resonated from within the ship. Then the floor, whipping from side to side, settled down again. 'We're hit!' It was Toop who spoke first. His voice was quiet, but heard all over the turret, for all the heavy armament had stopped firing. We could hear a few units of lighter armament still loosing off rounds, but the bursts had become infrequent, and in a few seconds died away altogether. We looked at each other: the turret was still mounted on the ship, I thought with relief. And the ammunition locker below hadn't been hit, unless afire had been started and ... 'We're losing way,' said the midshipman. 'Revs are dropping,'
We felt the gradual loss of speed; there was no surge of strength from astern. The noise of battle could be heard still, but growing fainter, ahead of us … The tannoy was silent. The midshipman tried to call gunnery control: no reply. The bridge: line also dead. The lighting in the turret began to dim. 'Emergency lighting!' ordered the middie. 'All guns check, check. check!' 'Ignition broken, centre gun!' 'Ignition broken, port gun!' The two reports were virtually simultaneous. I quietly shut the flap at my knees, to cover the cartridge case I had been about to lift out when we were struck. 'The convoy's a mile or more ahead now, action continuing,' announced the midshipman, sweeping all round with his periscope. 'All quiet to port and starboard ... No, I can see lights to starboard - it's a coast line, must be North Africa.' 'How far away, Sir?' Toop asked. ‘Hard to say. Less than five miles certainly; perhaps three.’ I thought at once: at least there's land nearby. And if they leave us alone, we may be able to repair our engines and rejoin the convoy, or sail home, keeping close inshore. But if we can't make it, if we are attacked and sunk on the way, then I can perhaps swim to safety - if the currents permit.
By now there was scarcely any way perceptible on the ship. Everything had turned silent. We were waiting for the tannoy to crackle into life, or the phone buzzer to sound at the middie's elbow. But the minutes dragged on. 'Can't see anything of the convoy now.' The middie’s voice had dropped too, and yet he could be heard throughout the turret. 'We must be lying still so as not to attract the E-boats back here.' I hadn't thought of that danger. We waited. 'Petty Officer Toop!' 'Aye-aye, sir!' 'Carry out rounds on the whole turret shaft and report back!' 'Aye-aye, sir. Leading Seaman Durnford, come with me!' The starboard gun captain crossed the turret floor and opened the hatchway for Toop and him to get down into the first level of the hoist. In the opening Clowes' face appeared: the mischievous twinkle had not disappeared. The two men clambered down, and the hatch was shut after them. We could hear voices faintly from below, for a short while. Still nothing on the tannoy or the phone. What had gone wrong with the TS? Perhaps it was the TS that had been hit: that might explain the failure of all communications.
After ten minutes Toop and Durnford returned. 'All men present and correct down below, sir,' Toop reported. ‘Some six-inch ammo left. But the shaft is a bit out of alignment, and won't turn. Not properly, as you might say.' 'You've tried manually?' 'Yes, sir. She'll budge, but only slowly. Seems the cogs are stickin'.' That meant, in effect, that A-turret was out of action.
As the minutes passed by, and turned into a full half hour, then more, we noticed that the list to starboard was gradually increasing. With a hole in her side, how long might it be before the ship would heel right over, and turn turtle? The absence of all communication was unnerving. Possibly all the officers on the bridge had been killed in the blast. Or the torpedo might have struck just aft of us and cut us off from the bridge, with no means of escape through flooded compartments and watertight doors. Perhaps, as a result of chaos further aft, we had been forgotten; or else, since we had failed to make contact, it had been assumed that everyone in A turret was dead. But we weren't, and had to await orders before moving from our action stations; to abandon our posts would amount to dereliction of duty, almost to desertion.
'We have to make contact with the bridge,' announced the midshipman in a calm voice that reached us all. 'We have to ask for orders. Any volunteer, a man to make his way to the bridge?' He was looking in my direction as he spoke. The image of drowning invaded my mind - between decks, without light, unable perhaps to retrace my steps back to the turret. I saw myself perhaps getting through to the bridge, but then having to make the return journey through the watery unknown in the dark, swimming by feel through the corridors, hoping to find a hatch at the other end ready to open to me when I knocked on it - or not ready, not responding to my frantic bangings and shouting, until ... My eyes were already averted; I could not face that unknown. I felt greatly ashamed, for this was just the kind of exploit in adventure book stories where the courage of the volunteer for a dangerous mission came to the fore. 'One volunteer,' the midshipman repeated, quietly. I realised that no-one had spoken, though almost half a minute had gone by. Then a voice spoke up from the front of the turret, between the port and centre gun barrels. ‘I’ll go, sir.’ It was a three-badge AB, whose action station was in the secondary control — from where the turret could be operated independently of the control tower. The midshipman instructed him briefly, and he disappeared down into the first level of the hoist, from where a door in the shaft wall gave out onto the messdeck. Then there was silence again. The ship was slowly listing further over to starboard. From time to time we glanced at each other, scanning faces for re-assurance, even for an interpretation of our situation. Would the E boats return? Perhaps they had crept back under cover of the coast, and were now preparing an attack out of that darkness ... One torpedo hit on the six-inch ammunition locker directly below us and we would be blown sky-high, with only a very few survivors ...
Over an hour had gone by when we heard voices below and then Clowes hammered at the hatch for us to re-open. The three-badge sailor re-appeared and stepped over to the midshipman. 'Did you get through to the bridge?' 'Yes, sir.' 'Who did you speak with?' 'The Commander, sir.' Hammersley-Johnston, the man next in rank to the Captain. ‘What orders did he give you?’ 'We're to abandon ship, sir.' A gasp of surprise from all over the turret. 'Anything else?' 'Yes, sir. They're putting charges to the sea-cocks, to scuttle her.' 'What time are they due to go off?' 'Around five a.m., sir.' 'That's in just over an hour’s time. What else?' 'We can collect any personal gear we can swim with from the mess-deck.' 'What's the lighting like, down below?' 'It's that blue emergency lighting everywhere, sir.' 'And then?' 'Muster at our raft stations and get rafts and floats in the water. And get away from the ship well before scuttling time.' 'Why were you so long in getting back? Is there damage below, obstructing movement?' 'No damage I could see, sir. But as I was making my way to the bridge, a Chief Petty Officer told me that the whole ship's company was to assemble on the flight deck - Captain's orders - and he wouldn't let me come back here to tell you.' 'What happened then?' 'I went to the flight deck and a minute later the Captain spoke to officers and men. He told us that we had been holed in the after engine room, and that the water was coming in through a hole too large to repair with canvas. Also the turbines have been thrown out of line and the port ones could only give us about five knots. Oh, and that we had almost run out of ammo for the Oerlikons and four-inch, so we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves. So he had decided to scuttle the ship to save its falling into the hands of the enemy, and that we were to abandon ship before dawn.' 'Petty Officer Toop!' 'Aye-aye, sir!' 'Carry the Captain's message and orders to everyone in A-turret shaft. When you are satisfied that everyone knows what to do, report to your abandon ship station and carry on independently.' ‘Aye-aye, sir!’ 'And to the Captain's orders add my advice, to make for the North African shore a few miles to starboard. Right. Gun crews fall out and carry on! And good luck to you all!' 'The same to you, sir!' from several throats. The midshipman had kept his head throughout the engagements, and had given us information as far as he was able. He had shared danger and hardship with us, and earned our respect.
Already some men were scrambling out on the fo’c’sle. The fear of another E boat attack was driving them to hasten. To me it felt strange to be abandoning the turret, knowing I would never return - that no-one would ever see it again. Should I leave the cordite charge in the hoist channel, or remove it? But everyone, I saw, was leaving the turret as it was, with shells on the loading trays; the port and centre guns were still loaded. Almost the last to leave, I went down the short ladder to the hoist deck. Toop was there, giving the final items of the Captain's orders to the turret hoist crew.
Out in the ship's corridors, there was a sense of discipline having broken down. Figures were hurrying this way and that with a strange intensity to their manner. Only a very few words were exchanged. Many were already quitting the messdeck, having taken what they could, and were on the way aft to get to the rafts and floats. Some, I noticed, had already inflated their life-jackets. In the dim blue emergency lighting, I could still see the determination to escape in their eyes; everyone was thinking only of saving his own skin. From having been a ship's company, we had become a crowd, under threat; it was each man for himself.
Our messdeck was almost abandoned when I got there. I opened my locker. My clothing, all tightly wrapped and rolled up so as to fit in the tiny space, lay there dumbly, each piece looking like a small creature condemned to die. I put my passbook in my overall breast pocket, and took a handkerchief to protect my head against the sun. What else did I need? I fingered one or two of the few small personal possessions my locker held. What about the wrist-watch I had inherited from Uncle Harold? But it would never withstand the water. Suddenly I knew: there was nothing I wanted to take. I slammed the locker shut and was about to lock it, out of habit. What for? I let it swing, the key still in the padlock ...
By now the interior of the ship had become very silent. As I made my way aft down the corridor, I wondered at the absence of signs of damage. Yet certain communicating doors seemed to have jammed shut, perhaps with the whipping motion that had immediately followed the explosion. So in order to get to my float, I had first to go aft to the flight deck, and from there make my way forward again, climbing up and down several vertical ladders on the ship's superstructure, now leaning over at about ten to fifteen degrees, and cross two Oerlikon platforms before I found myself on the upper deck by B turret, on the port side. I walked over in the faint night light to where the float to which I had been assigned was lashed. It was gone; and no-one standing around.
I realised from the voices and splashing that several floats and rafts were by now in the water. At the ship's side I saw that seamen were swarming down ropes to get on them, and make away from the vessel as smartly as possible. Turning round. I noticed that a few men were trying to cut free the last carley float in that area. Taking out my knife, I helped to sever some of the lashings, and we carried the heavy structure to the ship’s side, where the guardrail had been removed. 'Under below!' we called out twice, not daring to raise our voices too much, for we had been warned by Petty Officers to keep as quiet as possible; sound carries far across the water on a still night. Then we tipped the float over the side, holding on to one or two of its mooring ropes. It splashed heavily and then settled, right way up. Seamen already in the water began heaving themselves in, while others slid down ropes as fast as they could.
'Help me!' said a thin voice beside me. It was Jones, a non-swimmer. He looked quite terrified. 'All right, Joner,' someone said. 'We'll see you safe.' 'Stand by in the float below,' an AB called out in a firm voice. 'We've got a non-swimmer here, coming down this rope.' He shook it vigorously. 'It's Joner.' It was fortunate for Jones that he was popular on the messdeck; his somewhat feminine ways had aroused a protective feeling in quite a number of sailors towards him. So instead of moving off rapidly to ensure that the float didn't gather too heavy a load of men, the men below responded. 'Right, Joner: down you come!' He peered at the water and began to shake. 'I c-c-can't!' 'Go on down, Joner, or the float'll leave without you!' 'I'll go down alongside of you,' said the AB. 'I’ll be there as you go into the water. You can hold on to me.' Jones, still shaking with fear, grasped a bight of rope from below the deck edge, lay flat on deck, and levered himself over the ship’s side. In the starlight, he gradually disappeared from my view. A voice sounded from below. 'Here, Joner, put your foot here. That's it, boy ... Easy does it … Now you're aboard.'
A swish of movement in the water told me that the float was making away from the ship's side. A handful of us had failed to board it. We looked around to see what remained for us. Only two small balsa wood rafts were left; one was being prised loose by the only other group of sailors I could make out on deck. We made straight for the other, a half dozen of us. It was only about four feet square, and intended merely to provide handholds around its edges, where loops of rope were fitted. Anyone trying to sit on so small a raft was liable to overturn it. One of the seamen cutting the raft free alongside me was Lankester, in peace time a forester from Essex, with whom I had struck up a kind of friendship. He had told me he was a poor swimmer, and I had promised to help him if ever we found ourselves having to take to the water. By good fortune we had met up at the very moment when the last rafts were to be put into use. Once the raft was lowered - not a difficult task as it was relatively light - I saw to it that he climbed down by the tethering rope. From the darkness down there, he called out that he had hold of the raft, and I looked about me to see if there was anything else to do before actually going over the side. In those final moments I found I was reluctant to abandon the stability of the ship for a little bouncing thing on the water's surface, but there was nothing else to be done. The Manchester already had a doomed feel to it, as though the life that had inhabited the vessel had fled.
I slid down the rope, feeling nevertheless a bit foolish and unreal, and slipped into the water. It was silky and quite warm; there were no waves at all - a flat calm. Lankester guided me which way to swim by talking me towards the raft, which had already begun to move away from the ship's side. The other raft wasn't far away; we could hear the voices and splashing as they sought to use their hands as paddles. I grabbed a loop on one side of our raft and started scissoring with my legs to help the others take the raft further off, as fast as possible. For what we now feared most, apart from an E-boat attack and the explosion that would pulp our internal organs, was being sucked under by the cruiser as she sank. Our immediate task was to put as much distance as possible between us and the 7,000 tons of metal and wood and equipment, before she slid below, creating powerful eddies that could draw us into the same grave. Without any need for words between us, we tugged and paddled the raft away from the Manchester, making a rough course out from her port bow. It was slow work: we couldn’t swim in time, so the jerks of one man tended to be cancelled out by the momentary inertia of others. Moreover the raft was blunt, having no natural bow or stern, and floated better than it moved.
In about fifteen minutes we had, it seemed to me, only managed to put two to three hundred yards between us and the ship, which was still visible. I realised dawn must soon be breaking, for the intense darkness of the night had ceded into a greyness in which nothing had colour, but shapes were defining themselves by the minute. As we pulled gradually away from the familiar shape of the cruiser, now listing to starboard at a quite unfamiliar angle, we noticed that no other floats or rafts were near us, and indeed scarcely anything on the port side of the ship at all. One carley float and a raft were several hundred yards ahead of the ship and pulling round towards the shore, which now began to reveal its hilly form. Those, I thought, must be the carley float and the raft that had left just before we did. They had obviously not made away from the cruiser broad on the port bow as we had, but made straight for the bows, or else described a tight arc around them, so as to be heading for the shore as soon as could be managed.
After exchanging a few words, we decided to do likewise, and pushed and pulled the raft in a wide curve so as to aim eventually at the shore line. As we looked ahead, trying to estimate how far off the coast lay, the hill tops were touched with a tawny yellow, and began to glow. soon after, turning our heads, we saw a red rim mark the horizon, broaden and ascend. The darker shades of grey on the water's surface lightened; shafts of gold streaked towards us from the rising disc of the sun. We looked about us again; it was daylight. The Manchester was down by the stern, indeed almost submerged aft; the forepeak was high, almost clear of the water. Clankings could be heard as the anchor cable shifted its links, and deeper crashes sounded from within the hull when perhaps the strain on a bulkhead became too great and rivets started, causing a whole sheet of metal to bend or buckle.
As we slowly rounded the bows at a considerable distance, we could see the large number of rafts and floats making for the shore. Here and there I thought I caught the flash of oars; had they managed to hoist one of the whalers out? Everything was making for the shore, towards a dip in the hills where perhaps the coastline was less steep and it looked as if a shelving beach or little harbour beckoned us in. We tugged and shoved the blunt raft in the same general direction, but made extremely slow headway. An hour after setting out we were no more than 600 yards inshore from the cruiser, roughly abeam of her; that meant that currents were gradually taking us north, along the coastline. I wondered how strong they were; would we be swept away from the harbour faster than we could drag our stubborn craft towards it? We were tiring too; the kicking was weaker now, and each of us had to rest from time to time.
'She's going!' someone called out. We turned to see the cruiser heeling swiftly from 45 degrees of list to 70 or 80. The deck now faced us: all the wooden planking we had scoured so painstakingly, and the metal fo’c’sle we had beaten at so assiduously with chipping hammers. From within the ship came a harsh noise of rending, of metal grinding on metal, of dull thumps as pieces loosened and tumbled to starboard. The bridge superstructure began to lean over crazily towards the water, bending and complaining as it went. The cruiser was settling even deeper by the stern: the quarterdeck had disappeared underwater. She must turn turtle, we thought; the weight of the turrets would take her over. The angle increased to 90 and beyond - surely she was bound to go at any moment.
Stubbornly, the cruiser refused to slip under the waves. At last one of the seamen at our raft understood what had happened. 'Her stern's on the bottom,' he declared. 'She can't turn over because the stern section is already resting, on its side, on the seabed.' He must be right, I thought. The list was no longer increasing. But hollow, painful breaking-up noises continued to issue from within the hull, like the dying groans of a living creature. 'Poor old thing, she's taking a long time to go,' said a seaman. 'It's sad to see her break up like this.' The water was now swirling up the lower edges of the flight deck. The vessel was settling gradually, on her side. 'She's been home to us for all these months ...' A heavy rending came from inside the hull, and she began to disappear faster. The sides of the funnels were touching the blue surface of the sea; now they were taking in water. 'She's going, lads!' From across the sea came the sound of voices in chorus. 'Let's give her a cheer, then. Right?' 'Yes, we'll do that. See her to bed proper and friendly.' 'Three cheers for the Manchester, then, lads, hip, hip -, Our cheers rang out as the bridge was slipping under. From the bows one of the anchors slid out of its hawse-hole, as if to confirm the finality of the resting place. Last of all, the point of the bows slipped below.
Now there was nothing left to see of the cruiser; not even evidence of eddies or suction as she went deeper; only from time to time the bursting of great bubbles of air as some compartment collapsed under pressure and yielded up its last signs of having once been the home of seven hundred men. I felt unexpectedly abandoned, as if a parent had disappeared, or part of Britain. We were alone, making for a foreign shore, without any means of defending ourselves against attack. Only a few hours ago we had been powerful and swift, with a home to call our own. Now we had become destitute, owning nothing but the clothes we were swimming in. As if to underline our vulnerability and give substance to our fears, we heard the sound of an aeroplane approaching. 'One of ours, do you think?' 'Not likely. We're still too far from Malta.' 'What do we do, then?' 'Wait and see.' About a thousand yards off, the plane turned. She was three-engined, I seem to recall. The fuselage was light brown, and there were strange markings on the tail-fin. There came a shout. 'She's an Eye-tie!' As if in confirmation, the menacing rattle of machine-gun fire rasped on the morning air. 'She's firing! Scatter!' I burst away at once from the raft, with a sudden access of newly-found energy. After thirty yards I paused to look up. The plane was circling; it had stopped firing. I determined to stay where I was and dive if I saw it heading my way. As it came near us at a height of about two hundred feet, the windows of the cockpit cowling glinted in the sun, then cleared. I could see the heads of the pilot, and, to his rear, of the observer/gunner. I was sure by now that it wasn't a fighter: perhaps a reconnaissance aircraft, till I noticed two small bombs tucked in under the wings. Once, twice it circled us. Then something fell from it. 'Look out!' someone shouted. 'Flat on your backs!' 'No panic,' shouted another. 'It's not a bomb!' The shape was more like a bag or bundle. It fell with a heavy splash, and floated about a hundred and fifty yards from the nearest raft, seawards from it. 'Leave it alone, I say,' said one of the sailors clinging to our raft.
The aircraft had turned away, and was making north-east, no doubt to make its report. I wondered if the Italians would bring up fighters to machine-gun us in the water; such things were not unknown. No-one showed any interest in picking up what had been dropped, especially as it lay further offshore. 'Come on lads, let's get closer to that coastline!' 'Where is it, anyhow? , 'Come on, Lofty,' said Lankester. 'You ought to know.' It was the first time he had spoken since rounding the bows of the cruiser. In spite of his note of expectation about my knowledge, I saw that he was anxious and strained. He didn't like being in the water, not at all. 'Well,' I began, 'the coast runs north and south here, I reckon.' 'That tallies.' 'So it's got to be Tunisia.' 'That somewhere near the narrow bit?' ' ‘Beyond it.’ 'Who owns this country we're headed for, then?' 'The French. Vichy French, I think.' 'Dirty lot they are, by all accounts. Don't trust 'em.' 'Are they in the war, then, or not?' 'I think they call themselves neutral.' 'But friends of old Adolf all the same...?' 'You might say that,' I replied guardedly. 'Well if they are neutral, let's get inside the three-mile limit just as sharp as we can.' 'What for?' 'Because once we're in there, there's less chance the Eyeties'll come and put some bullets in us.' 'Right. Or the Gerries.' 'Bugger them for a lark!'
So we kicked out again, and for a time seemed to make some progress towards the shore, now beginning to be enveloped in a haze that made it all the harder to tell how far off we still were. Nevertheless we were almost the farthest out of all the rafts and floats headed for North Africa. By now the sun had climbed higher into the sky and was warming our heads and shoulders; its light played dazzlingly on the surface. The strength of the glare and the increasing heat, combined with the weakness from an empty stomach, was making me feel fuzzy in the head. Silence settled over us as we continued to nudge our raft towards the land, in a daze so general that sometimes we lost direction and had to be pulled up and corrected by one or other amongst us who happened at that moment to be a little more awake than the rest. We were all weary, too, from lack of sleep, as well as from the strain under which we had been living for the past four or five days.
Around eight or nine in the morning, we heard the puffing of an old-fashioned ship's engine coming across the water from the shore. One of the seamen climbed with difficulty up on the raft, and knelt there while we endeavoured to hold it steady for him. Looking in the direction of the sound, he told us that what looked like a picket boat, maybe an old steam launch, was amongst the Manchester survivors nearer inshore and appeared to be helping them, probably picking them up.
The subsequent movements of the picket boat seemed to confirm this, for it turned shorewards, and half an hour later could once more be heard moving about among the rafts and floats. But it was still a long way from us, and many more sailors would have to be picked up and taken ashore before our turn came. I grew uneasy about the lack of headway we were making with our raft. Our swimming movements had by now almost ceased, so we were at the mercy of the current, which was clearly carrying us north along the coast. We might even be carried out to sea again, and left to our fate by the French as seamen of a belligerent nation beyond the three-mile limit and thus outside their jurisdiction.
The carley float
I made my way round to where Lankester was hanging to a loop of rope and spoke quietly in his ear. 'We're not getting any nearer.' He nodded, rather dispiritedly. 'But the men on the carley float over there are still paddling, ' I pointed out. Lankester looked up at me. 'We could swim over to them,' I proposed. He gazed across the surface of the water, smooth, glinting here and there. 'It's a long way.' 'Only about four hundred yards.' 'I'm not sure I can do it.' 'You've got your lifebelt. All you've got to do is keep going gently ... I'll swim by you.' He studied my face. 'Promise you won't leave me then?' 'I'll be with you.'
He pushed away from the raft and began to swim, using an old-fashioned trudgeon stroke, quite vigorously at first, and then settling into a slacker style. I used the breast stroke, or lay floating on my back waiting for Lankester to catch up the few yards I had gone ahead of him. 'Where are you off to?' A voice called out from the raft we had abandoned. Neither of us bothered to answer. I didn't want to reveal our intentions clearly in case others at the raft got the same idea, and the men on the float refused to let us hang on, out of fear for the float's capacity or buoyancy. I had not reckoned however on the fact that the float was moving inshore about half as fast as we were swimming. After twenty minutes we appeared to be still only mid-way between raft and float, and Lankester was plainly tiring. 'Take a short rest,' I told him. 'Blow some more air into your life-jacket.' The life-jackets issued in the Navy then were primitive in their construction: they would not keep you afloat by themselves; you had to scissor gently with your legs to keep your head above water. They consisted of an inflatable rubber ring around your chest under the armpits, with a nozzle; the ring was covered with cloth and fitted with straps to tie on round your shoulders, with a loop round the back of your neck. On these inadequate air tubes now depended Lankester's survival, and possibly mine too.
After a couple of minutes we swam on again, very slowly reducing the distance between us and the carley float. I could see that it held many more men than I had reckoned from further off. A lot were inside, sitting on the inner edge, or simply standing on the wooden flooring that was suspended two or three feet underwater, held to the outer ring by rope netting. 'Ahoy!' I called out. 'Float ahoy!' There was no response. Some of the men sitting at the edge of the float were using their hands as paddles making the float head towards the shore. 'Ahoy there!' I shouted again. A couple of heads looked in my direction, and then turned away again without uttering any sound. I felt they were set on ignoring me, behaving as if they hadn't heard or understood. I swam back a dozen yards to rejoin Lankester; his arms were by now lifting only sluggishly as alternately they performed a weary trudgeon. 'I'm going on to make contact with the float, and then I'll come back to you. I've got to get them to stop paddling for a while to let you catch up.' He didn't reply; he seemed to be in a kind of mechanically moving stupor, as if these weary movements of the body were all his mind and body knew. 'I'm off to the float,' I repeated, 'and I'll come back for you.' Still no signs of understanding. I left, glad at last to be able to swim at my own speed. Within minutes I was only twenty yards from the float. This time several heads had turned, and were looking at me with glazed expressions. 'There's a weak swimmer out there,' I called out, gasping a little from my exertions as I trod water. They just continue to stare blankly in my direction. I now saw that the whole float was ringed with men hanging on, up to their necks in water; many were grey with fatigue, and obviously unable to think outwards from themselves. Suddenly I feared I would not be able to get through into their minds. I swam on in a burst to the float, and grabbed a few inches of looped rope at its side. 'Look,' I said, 'There's a weak swimmer out there, he's my oppo, you've got to help him.' 'We've got all we can handle here now,' said one voice. 'Yeah, why did you leave your raft?' asked another. 'We were making no headway, and the current was taking us up the coast.' 'Best just stay where you are then,' murmured a third voice. I looked up in desperation. A few pairs of eyes were now looking out across the water at Lankester. He was still trying to swim, but now even more sluggishly. 'You can see he's weakening,' I appealed. 'Just lay off paddling for a minute or two and I'll bring him in.' 'We can't leave him there, mates,' said a new voice, with greater strength. 'Let's give ourselves a spell.' 'Poor bastard, he's not got much go left in him.' The swirl of water round the float ceased. I broke away, and swam back with renewed hope to Lankester, calling out to him that the carley float was waiting for him, that there weren't many yards to go, that he was doing fine ... His energy picked up for a little while, and then suddenly seemed to fail; he hung his head forward, and his arms stopped moving. Alarmed, I swam up close to him. His head lifted and he glared at me. ‘Shall I pull you in ?’ I asked. 'Lie on your back, and I’ll tow you.’ For answer he glared again, and recommenced his trudgeon. I swam alongside, glancing nervously at the carley float, now about fifty yards away, fearful lest they should find his progress too slow and begin paddling once more. To make sure contact was not lost, I swam quickly towards the float and then back to Lankester, encouraging him with my voice not to give up. Voices from the float then joined me, and I knew we were safe, provided he could make the last few yards without sinking. Once again he appeared to collapse, and then recovered. A minute later I guided his hand to a loop of rope on the float and he hung there by my side, totally exhausted.
Now the seamen on the float started to paddle again with their hands, and some of those in the water to kick. The ponderously slow movement in towards the shore was resumed. After a while Lankester raised his head and looked at me. 'You bastard!' he hissed. I looked blank. 'What the hell do you mean?' 'You bastard!' he whispered again. 'Leaving me alone like that1' 'But I told you,' I said. 'I had to contact the float or they wouldn't have waited.' 'You promised! His eyes were full of hatred and anger. 'You promised not to leave me. Remember?' I was too hurt and too weary to reply. I simply pushed away from that part of the float and swam round it until I could find another handhold. My own span of attention had all at once shrunk, and I found that my mind could focus on nothing more than the rope I was holding, and the heat of the sun burning into my scalp, and the cruel glint of its rays on the wavelets in front of my face.
The daze I was in deepened, and for the first time I felt cold deep within my body. The passage of time seemed to stretch out into another dimension … 'The picket-boat's coming out again,' someone said. 'There's not many floats now between her and us.' 'Could be our turn, then?' another voice asked. There was a stir of interest amongst the men. I tried to get sight of the craft, but had to wait several minutes before the float swung around enough for me to see a launch with a squat funnel about half a mile away, hove to amidst a cluster of rafts and floats. I thought I could just make out survivors being helped aboard. In the bright sunlight, the upperworks of the launch and its hull too seemed to be painted in a pinkish ochre, and to glow warmly and welcomingly.
'Two destroyers on the starboard beam!' The voice rang out with authority, breaking the daze into which we had all in varying measures succumbed. Heads stretched round to catch a glimpse of the ships reported. 'They're Eye-ties, lads!' shouted one seaman. 'Paddle for your lives!' 'How can you tell?' countered another. 'They're bows on!' A furious argument broke out. Some men had begun paddling hard; others kept still. I swam round to get a proper look, for I had been hanging on the wrong side of the float. Two slim warships had rounded the headland and were making straight for us, a great bow wave frothing white against the blue as they drove ahead. 'They're not Eye-ties,' said another seaman. ‘Look at the superstructure, the radar in it. They're British destroyers!’ A half-hearted cheer went up, but many on the float were not convinced. 'Supposin' they’re Eye-ties, after all, though. Better be interned by the French than imprisoned. Let's make for the picket-boat, lads. At least we know what they are.' 'Yeah, that's where the rest of our mates have gone.' 'I've served in bloody destroyers,' protested the second seaman, 'and I’ve stared at their lines abeam, ahead and astern till I could draw them in my sleep. Those are British destroyers, I tell you. Don't you bloody want to be rescued? Don't you want to get home then?' The picket-boat had picked up all the survivors round it and began to make towards us. The destroyers were now within a mile. Suddenly their guns opened up and the water near the picket-boat burst into little feathers of spray. 'They're ours!' bellowed the first seaman, switching his opinion. 'Make for them!' As if in confirmation, the destroyers swung to port, showing their full lines. Now there was no doubt; we could even see the white ensign at the stern. Everyone began paddling and kicking like mad towards the Royal Navy ships. Glancing back, I saw that the French picket-boat had turned tail and was making all the speed she could for the shore.
One of the destroyers moved into the centre of the remaining rafts and floats while the other one patrolled swiftly to seaward of the survivors. We made for the stationary vessel as rapidly as we could, shouting 'Ahoy there! - perhaps in fear of being left behind if for instance enemy aircraft should suddenly appear and attack. The rescue destroyer now began moving from float to float, and very soon drew up within twenty yards of ours. At once those hanging on the ropes round the float let go and began swimming for the destroyer's side, I among them. I could hear the re-assuring purr of the ship's machinery - a living vessel, as the Manchester had once been. The smell of diesel oil grew stronger as I approached the scrambling net that had been slung from the upper deck amidships to help us aboard. 'Throw us a line, then,' I heard from the direction of the carley float. Only a few yards for me to go. Four, three, two, one - and I had hold of the rough texture of the rope netting. The throbbing of the ship's engines re-verberated gently in the hull against my fingers.
'Watch it, then. Easy does it!' The words were followed by a shout of warning and a lot of splashing. I turned to see all the men still in the carley float being pitched into the water as the thing turned completely over. The weight of escaping men on one side had pressed one edge down too deep. In the welter of thrashing bodies, a voice rang out among them. 'There's a non-swimmer - he's trapped underneath!' Over my head a figure flashed - a seaman from the destroyer had dived in. Just a few strong strokes brought him to the float. He duck-dived. In seconds he had dragged someone clear.
The float now lay still; men were approaching the net, so I started to climb up. I managed to get half of my body out of the water, and then stuck. My legs refused to take my weight. Two destroyer ratings climbed down and dragged me up on board; I crawled towards the torpedo tubes on my hands and knees. The metal deck near them was warm no, hot. I crawled back on the wooden deckboards and looked back. Manchester seamen were coming inboard, amongst them Joner, with his rescuer. It was he who had almost drowned under the float. Moments later the deck vibrated and we were under way. Now it was the turn of the other destroyer to pick up the rest of the survivors, while we patrolled. I sat on the deck, too weak to stand. The sun was gradually sending into warming shafts deep into all the parts of my body that had grown cold. The relief at being out of the water, and on board a British ship again, relaxed me: all I wanted to do was sleep. I turned my overall down to the waist, and tied the arms round me. Wearing only a singlet above the waist, I crawled up on the coconut matting spread over the torpedo tubes to protect them from the heat, and fell asleep at once.
On the destroyer
I have the impression that, as I lay there, I was shaken more than once in an effort to rouse me, but to no avail, for I refused to respond, and may even have grunted at whoever it was to leave me alone; I was too much in need of more sleep. In the end two sailors came and took my arms, one on either side, saying something about captain's orders. They persisted till they had lifted my shoulders up clear of the matting. The sunlight was still so much in my eyes that I could scarcely focus; but slowly I realised that an officer was facing me, and telling me to stand up. With the help of the two sailors I slid off the matting, but the moment I put my legs on the deck, they crumpled under me and I would have collapsed had I not been caught. 'Take him for'ard!' I thought I heard the officer say. The sailors threw my limp arms round their necks and dragged me along, my bare feet rubbing uselessly on warm wooden surface of the decking, and then, once in shadow, on the familiar linoleum of the messdeck. They laid me down athwartships, my head close to the hull, my feet pointing inwards, close to other Manchester survivors, of whose presence I became only dimly aware before falling asleep again.
During the night I woke up, feeling hot and feverish. My arms and shoulders, which had been exposed to the Mediterranean August sun while I lay spreadeagled on the tubes, burned painfully: I felt ill and confused. My throat was parched with thirst, so dry as to be painful. But the recollection of the torpedo striking the Manchester was still vivid in my memory, and I could not stop imagining a torpedo plunging into the hull at my head - exploding in a shattering noise, reducing the messdeck to debris, and causing the frantic, panicking rush of all those survivors jamming in the two small openings that gave out on to the open deck amidships. In my weak condition I knew that I couldn't make it; I would be shouldered out of the way. Yet the determination to survive, now that I had been once rescued, grew all the stronger almost because of my enfeebled state. So when one of the destroyer's crew came around with drinking water, I signalled urgently to him, and drank eagerly; it was the first matter of any kind I had swallowed since quitting the Manchester.
I must have fallen asleep several times, and woken again in various levels of feverishness during the remainder of the night. I remember being aware of the sound of the water tearing past my head on the other side of the hull, only a few inches from me. It gave a sense of power and menace, all the more when I recalled that the plates of the vessel were no more than an eighth of an inch thick. The destroyer was fast, and I reckoned fuzzily that we must be making about thirty knots: every sea mile we put behind us brought us that much further from the dangerous narrows near Sicily. But the sides of the vessel were thin, and offered almost no protection against shells or torpedoes, or against aerial bombing.
By now we were well into the open ocean and meeting with the full strength of the Atlantic swell. The ungainly shape of the carrier tilted first this way - and then that - in a long rhythm of pitching and rolling quite different from the Manchester’s responses to movement caused by the sea. The Victorious, with a displacement of about 22,000 tons, rode the swell heavily, ponderously. It was while I was peeling spuds, perched in a kind of balcony projecting from the ship's side about half way between the waterline and the flight deck, that I first realised how slow and extensive was the ship's motion.
The sequence tended to be like this. For ten or fifteen seconds we would be almost on an even keel, as the carrier moved along the line of a trough between two swells, two or three hundred yards apart. As the next swell, always from the west, approached the vessel, she would begin to heel to starboard, and the water surface in front of my balcony would come nearer as I was tilted over more and more towards it. For a moment or two I would be struggling to hold myself on my stool, my feet strongly braced against stanchions at the balcony edge, as I peered down into the blue-black waters only about fifteen feet below. Then the swell would lift the great mass of the carrier on its shoulders, and pass underneath it. The Victorious would begin to right herself, come back to vertical, and then, as she slid down the back of the swell, roll slowly over to port. Now I would be raised on my balcony sixty or seventy feet above the water, and look out into the sky, or across at one of our escorting destroyers rolling and butting her way through configurations of minor waves that complicated the overall pattern of the swell. The huge mass would finally smash down into the next trough, and then sluggishly right herself, before running on an even keel for a while and then recommencing the same sequence. As I was out in the open air, and on the lee side of the vessel, I was able to withstand this motion better than I had feared. I think I vomited briefly a couple of times, and then learnt how to adjust my breathing to counteract the effect of the roll, taking in air as she fell away under me, and expelling it steadily as she rose. I found it easier to stand than sit, for then I could tilt my body against the ship and remain more or less upright. So I placed my two buckets between my feet - one bucket with the unpeeled spuds in, the other with rinsing water and peelings in it. Facing forward to help me gauge the ship’s movement by the swinging of the bows, I did my share of the work as a scullion, becoming increasingly proficient at it.
Another skill I acquired was the art of going up and downstairs in heavy weather. I learnt that it was a pointless expenditure of effort to try to climb up the metal stairs of a companionway when the deck was rising, for my body felt twice as heavy as normal, and each step was heavy labour. If I waited till the deck was dropping away, all I had to do was kick my feet in and out smartly as the near vertical stairway feel away below me, and run my hand up the chain at the side to steady myself - and in a trice I would reach the top. The same trick worked in reverse for descending: wait for the ship to be rising under me, and kick my feet in and out as the ladder passed by - and I was at the bottom. In each case I had hardly moved through the air: the ship had changed her position in respect of mine.
Provided the weather wasn't too rough, we were allowed on the flight deck, with lifejackets on. I felt strangely exposed to be walking on that tilting platform, without any guardrail protection at the edge. In sunny spells Coates and I, with others from the fo'c'sle messes on the Manchester, would promenade up and down the length of the deck. In part this was simply for exercise - the Navy made a virtue of moving your bowels once a day - but it was also to give ourselves the space to move more freely than we could between decks, as well as to chat and chaff each other the meanwhile. Some bravado was also involved, for some of us would see how close we dared go aft to the stern edge of the flight deck. There the heaving and movement was accentuated, and staring down into the heaving swell and the ship's wake could induce a sense of vertigo and make you feel as if you were about to be pitched overboard into those powerful waves.
The further north we went, the fewer were the sailors walking the windy flight deck, and the more were the rumours passed around about which port we were making for. Liverpool, said some, but Glasgow seemed more likely. Crewmen of the Victorious believed she was due for repair, which increased speculation, but did not point clearly to where survivors would be disembarked — which was all that interested the sailors in transit. But day after day went by without any land heaving into sight. We knew from the sun we were travelling east, and should therefore see something soon.
When at last the cry went up, we all rushed up on to the flight deck, hunching our shoulders and clustering together against the wind. On our starboard bow was a great green headland, with one whitewashed lighthouse and a small cottage nearby. Surely we had seen that before ... 'It's Cape Wrath!' shouted one of the Manchester men. 'Back to bloody Scapa then!' There was a groan of disappointment. Rumours flew about wildly: we were going into Scapa to be kitted out on Hoy, and then kept ashore there to await posting to another ship; we were to be transferred to a troop carrier and taken down to Glasgow … But everyone was proved wrong when the Victorious steamed on the whole night. Next morning we were still making way; land lay on our right hand, but the sun told us we were now moving south. Scotland's east coast! This was confirmed when around midday we found ourselves passing Aberdeen, identified by a sailor whose home was in that city. I had been on deck since mid-morning, for the chance to see more of the coastline of Britain was something I didn’t want to miss. Also I was aware that mines might have been sown by an enemy submarine in what was supposed to be a swept channel, and I did not want to be trapped below decks when we were so close to safety.
Around tea-time we anchored off a port. The ship's tannoy told all survivors to gather in the aircraft hangar to await transfer ashore to Arbroath, where a train was said to be ready to take us further south. We were taken away in barges hauled by tugs, and made fast alongside a simple jetty. Dry land again underfoot, and Britain: I had made it. The adventure was complete. But there were no welcoming bands to parade us victoriously into the town: only surly Petty Officers dragooning us into squads to be marched along the dockside and into a railway siding where a number of carriages were drawn up waiting. These looked as if they had been taken out of some dusty storage shed. As we clambered up into them from ground level, we found that we would have to travel four a side, crammed together into the space meant for three. Once we had got in, the doors were locked on us; the temptation might be too great for some to make a break, especially as none of us had any movement papers and thus there was no efficient means of checking on us. So we waited, and waited, until at last an engine came and coupled up and slowly began easing us out of that siding.
The journey south had begun, but we found ourselves stopping frequently, for we were a special train and had to fit into the gaps between scheduled services. Several times we were shoved into a siding to let other trains pass; as they did so, we jeered at the driver and passengers, shouting: 'Yaah! Civvies!' 'There's a war on — ain’t you heard?' The passengers looked back in alarm to see so many ruffianly figures hanging out of the railway carriage windows, only half dressed as seamen. Then we would hear the whistle from our own engine and it would reluctantly puff and sigh and clank, as it again took the strain of the old coaches and their charge of ragamuffin sailors. We noticed too that there was no question of pausing at any station. We trailed through Perth and then Stirling, many of us casting longing eyes at the railway buffet. The vision of tea and buns grew gradually into images of much more substantial meals, as we approached the border and the evening lengthened into night. Our headway was still desperately slow, and hunger was becoming a major concern; thirst too. But the train merely dragged on, southwards. Soon sailors were spreading themselves out on the floor for the night. This move, once begun, spread so swiftly that the only bit of flooring I could find was immediately outside a toilet. Throughout the night, as the train clanked on and stopped and started again, men stepped over me, or in their half-awake condition stubbed their toes against me, or kicked me in anger at being in their way. They seemed to come every few minutes to use the loo. By morning I was stiff and bruised, hungry and very thirsty. My tongue was thick and furred, and I felt that the train was some kind of prison, out of which I might never be allowed. We could be shunted into a siding somewhere, and forgotten. Then we would climb out through the windows, I reasoned, and all go absent without leave, or AWOL.
Nevertheless we must have made considerable headway during the night hours. By daylight names on hoardings gave clues that we must by now be somewhere in the home counties and apparently making for London. The mood in the train, however, was becoming quite rebellious, with ugly outbursts of temper between men. We had had nothing to eat or drink since late afternoon in Arbroath. As we shuffled into the outskirts of London around eleven in the morning, we hung out of the windows, trying to attract attention from anyone we could see. At windows of three-storey houses backing onto the tracks women appeared, roused by our shouting: 'How about a cup o’ char, then, love?' 'Just throw us down yer teapot, then!' 'Got a crust o’ bread for a shipwrecked sailor?'
Finally we pulled in at a derelict-looking station somewhere in the Willesden area. There was no-one about but Petty Officers, equipped with keys to unlock the carriage doors. 'Out yer get, then. Look smart! Fall in on the platform!' Stiff and famished, we stretched our limbs at last in the unwonted space of the platform, ignoring the harrying of the Petty Officers. 'How about some grub, then, Chief?' 'Some char - we ain't drunk since yesterday, not a drop!' The PO’s looked incredulously at us. It was clear they had no idea what our journey had been like. It soon came out that they had simply been told to stand by for survivors who needed re-kitting. The sailors, especially the older hands, lost no time in telling the PO’s just what the score was, and all pretence of trying to discipline us into three ranks disappeared.
Not far from me a PO was speaking to a group of sailors. 'All the gen we got was to take you from the station to the pusser's stores - that's nearby, only a few hundred yards down the road - and get you kitted out.' 'They got a canteen there, then?' 'Yeah, or a NAAFI?' The PO hung his head. 'Not that I've seen.' 'Gawd Christ!' 'Come back from the Med, and this is the way they treat yer!' By now sailors were breaking off here and there and going to the station toilet, where some cold taps had been found. 'Once we're kitted out,' a Leading Seaman asked, ‘what then?' 'You get a pass for indefinite leave home,' replied the PO. There was a gasp of satisfaction. 'Home leave!' 'What are we waiting for!' 'Come on - fall in then!' 'The sooner the kitting out's done, we can all get away!' 'Roll on six o' bleedin’ clock!' 'I can just feel that pint goin' down me throat!'
Within minutes we were walking, not marching, along a drab back street of London in some industrial zone, and turned in to a large warehouse. There we shed our survivors' garments (though I kept the paint-stained overalls as a kind of memento of the Manchester) and were issued with the full set of clothing and equipment, just as had happened on my second day in Collingwood. In the warmth of late August we had to try on all the articles to get the right size. But this time the men behind the counter couldn't bully us as they had when we were raw recruits. It was we who did the choosing, and satisfied ourselves that we were getting what suited us. Yet the boots were stiff and squeaked as I walked; the socks were too thick for summer wear; the cap was stubbornly round and would not yield easily to my attempts at wrestling its brim into the shape of my head. The kitbag, filled with all the bits and pieces, was heavy and lumpy. Bearing it on my shoulder, and wearing full uniform for the first time since leaving Scapa for the Med, I moved through to the pay office, was issued with a fresh identity card - retaining my Official Number of PJX 294798 - and paid arrears for July and August, the sum being entered in a new paybook. Last of all I got a travel warrant for the underground journey to Turnham Green station, and a pass saying 'On indefinite leave'.
I must have had a cup of tea and a bun at a station somewhere; I have a feeling I passed through King's Cross. That would have meant taking the tube to Hammersmith, and then the familiar District Line train passing through Ravenscourt Park - a glimpse of Latymer, my old school - and of Stamford Brook — crossing the bridge under which I used to walk as a schoolboy every morning and evening - and so to Turnham Green. It felt strange to be carrying a whole kitbag down the station stairs, so familiar from my adolescence, and turning into Bedford Park again. I had forgotten my parents' new address; all I remembered was that it was close to Mrs Brunsden's house. I recalled that this was 13 Fairfax Road, from visits paid there in the mid-1930s. So I rang the bell. Mrs Brunsden - long nose, enormous spectacles, tall and bony - opened the door, and gasped. 'Hallo, Mrs Brunsden. I'm looking for my parents' house.' 'Along there,' she managed to say, scarcely able to find her voice at the shock of seeing me suddenly at the door, and in sailor's uniform. 'Nineteen.' 'Thank you.' She stood there, stupefied, so I went down the path and shut the gate behind me, nodding a goodbye to her.
Strangely enough I can hardly remember anything of the moment of home-coming itself. I have the impression that it was my sister who opened the door, and on seeing me whooped for joy. But no memory remains of how my parents responded to my reappearance. I know that they had heard that the Manchester had been lost, and that most of the crew had made their way into internment in North Africa; I am not sure any information had been given about survivors getting back to Britain. I reached home late in August. The Manchester had been torpedoed on the 13th of that month, and so the journey back must have taken about a fortnight. I remember telling them about the exploits we had been through, and feeling proud to have covered already both the Arctic and the Med. But it felt very strange to be back in Chiswick, where I had spent my early teens in another house, and living again for a while with my father and mother, now a little aged, but still basically unchanged.
Capt. Harold N. Drew DSC. HMS Manchester
Capt. Drew served during the First World War as a Midshipman and in the Second World War was the Captain of HMS Manchester between the 31st of May 1941 and the 13th of August 1942 when the ship was lost.
During Operation Pedestal The Manchester was torpedoed and her engine room flooded. With the ship only able to travel slowly in a circle, Capt Drew took the decsion to abandon the ship and scuttle her in order to prevent the brand new ship's radar from falling into the hands of the enemy.
Drew took to the lifeboats with his men and got ashore in Tunisia with 27 officers and 375 of his men. They were taken prisoner by the Vichy French. They were held in a POW camp until freed by the Allies during Operation Torch. On return to Britain Drew was summoned to an enquiry and found guilty of negligence as the Admiralty believed that the ship could have reached a friendly port.
I would like to know which POW camp Drew and his officers were held in. If anyone has any information or photos of Captain Drew I would love to hear from you.
Ldg Stoker James Cross HMS Manchester
My father was an RAF passenger on Manchester during Operation Substance, 10th - 26th July 1941. Jim Cross showed him the ropes, lent him his hammock, etc. My father tried to find Mr Cross after the war, without success, But other survivors of H.M.S Manchester's crew remember Mr Cross only up to the time of the repairs at Philadelphia Navy Yard. After that he joined another ship. Does anyone know his whereabouts?
In the Index of Marine Deaths at the General Registry there is a James H. Cross, Chief Stoker, who was killed at Donibristle, the Royal Navy Aircraft Yard near Rosyth, in 1943. I fear this may be Jim Cross. I'd be very grateful for any information.
Jack Mitchell HMS Manchester
Jack Mitchell served on HMS Manchester and was on board when they took part in Operation Pedestal, the largest convoy of the war, bringing vital support to Malta, which was facing the possibility of surrender to Italy. The convoy included 13 large merchant ships, five aircraft carriers, two battleships, eight cruisers, 36 destroyers and nine submarines. Only two of these vessels actually reached Malta.
In an interview in 2005 Jack said: "Before the convoy left, Churchill sent a signal to the officer commanding to say that, should just one merchant ship arrive in Malta and all the others sunk, it would still be deemed a success. Malta would have had to surrender if no-one had got through."
The Manchester was torpedoed in the convoy on the 13th of 1942. Jack Mitchell and the rest of the crew abandoned ship and the vessel was scuttled. Jack and his crewmates were taken prisoner by the Vichy French and spent four months at the infamous Langout POW camp in Algeria. Conditions were vicious. A book was written about the camp and it said "Let us never forget the extreme privations suffered by the crew of the HMS Manchester and others in Langout." After Jack was freed from the camp following the North Africa landings, he returned to sea on aircraft carriers.
Radar Operator George Louis Robertson HMS Manchester
My Dad, George Louis Robertson served as Radar Operator on the Manchester during Operation Pedestal, he also served on Tartar and Campania. George died in 1978 but I am researching that time of his life. If anyone served with George or served on the ships at the same time could you contact me. Thank you.
Chief Mechanic Charles Smith HMS Manchester (d.13th Aug 1942)
My grandfather, Chief Mechanic Charles Smith was one of the 13 who died when HMS Manchester was hit by a torpeado on 13th August 1942. I would very much like to hear from anyone on that ship who may have known him.
Ldg Stoker Charles Ernest Spooner HMS Manchester
My father-in-law, Charles Spooner was a stoker first class on The Manchester at the time that she was sunk. He was then held in a POW camp by the Vichy French and after his release with the other prisoners he was returned to England where he was hospitalised in either Hastings or Wales. This was around 1942/3 As my Husbands parents separated he has very little knowledge about what his Father went through during this time and as I am doing a web page I would appreciate any information that anyone can give me such as how many men were on the HMS MANCHESTER, how many survived and how many days were the survivers in the water before being rescued and does anyone have any idea what the name of the POW camp would be and what kind of conditions would be there I understand that it was in North Africa.
Stoker 2nd Class. Norman Greaves HMS Manchester (d.20 Oct 1942)
Norman Greaves was 22 years old whne he was interned by the Vichy French in the Laghouat Camp in Tunisia, after surviving the torpedoing of HMS Manchester. On 20th October 1942 he attempted to escape through the perimeter wire after bribing the Arab sentry with a wristwatch, the Arab sentry took the watch then double crossed him and shot him in the back. A riot by the PoW’s was de-fused by Captain Drew R.N. demanding of the French Commandant that medical attention be given to Greaves. However, he was unconscious and never recovered. His burial service was conducted by the Reverend Donald Bruce Walker, the R.N. Chaplain of HMS Manchester
Chaplin Donald Bruce Walker HMS Manchester
Donald Walker was the R.N. Chaplin of HMS Manchester, after the ship was torpedoed he made it to the Tunisian coast and was taken POW by the Vichy French along with many of the crew.
Pte. William Ranner HMS Manchester
My Grandfather served on HMS Manchester. His name was William (Bill Ranner) Private Royal Marines. His service docs show that he was interned after the sinking of the Manchester. I can only assume he made it ashore and was captured and held as a POW.
Ray "Taff" Davies HMS Manchester
My first ship was the destroyer HMS Cossack (LO3)and I was aboard when she was sunk by a German U-Boat in the North Atlantic in 1941. I was one of 58 survivors out of a ship's complement of 240. I spent 6 hours in the water and was able to help rescue a young Lieutenant who went on to become Rear Admiral Anthony Davies. Rear Admiral Anthony Davies eventually became the President of the Swindon Branch of the RNA and stayed in contact with me and my family until he passed away a few years ago. We were eventually rescued by HMS Legion, which was under the command of Commander Jessel.
My next ship was the cruiser HMS Manchester that was sunk whilst escorting a Malta convoy in August 1942. We were in the water for 12 hours and eventually picked up by an Italian E-Boat and taken to Tunis. We were then tranferred by train to Algiers and truck to Laghouat POW camp, which was 320 miles into the Sahara desert. I spent 5 months in Laghouat and was then repatriated to Algiers where I took passage aboard the troopship Arundel Castle back to Rosyth in Scotland. I then travelled back to RNB Portsmouth before taking 2 weeks leave.
I then joined the light cruiser HMS Emerald and sailed for the Far East in January 1943 and patrolled the Indian Ocean for about 18 months before being recalled post haste back to the UK. We went straight back to Rosyth, we were not allowed any leave and once back at sea the ship's company was informed that it was D-Day - Operation Neptune to the navy. Our beachhead was 'Sword' and 'Juno' where we were attacked by a German bomber. The bomber dropped 5 bombs, 2 to port and 2 to starboard, buckling the port and starboard plates. The fifth bomb landed on a gun deck and remarkably did not explode. We spent 10 days on the beachhead.
In 1944 I joined the Hunt Class destroyer HMS Talybont (L18) and saw out the war in Europe. We then sailed to the med' for 2 1/2 years service on Palestine patrols. After the war I was called but because of the Korean war and I saw out my service until 1951 on HMS Battleaxe.
Ldg Stoker John Norman Angus HMS Manchester (d.23rd Jul 1941)
John was 36 years old wehn he was killed. Manchester was an escort in Operation ‘Substance’ a Convoy from Gibraltar, when it was hit by torpedoes fired by the Italian E-boats Nos. 16 and 22. An oil fuel tank was hit, the adjacent compartments flooded and her engines were damaged, she returned to Gibraltar for repairs.
Lt Cmdr. Bryce Clinkard HMS Manchester
My Father was an officer on HMS Manchester during Operation Pedestal. He passed away in 2007 and his ashes were scattered over the site of the wreck of the Manchester.
James Adams HMS Manchester
Jim Adams joined the Royal Navy aged 16 in 1938, he served on HMS Tetcott and HMS Whitshed, HMS Manchester and HMS Spartan. He survived the sinking of both the Manchester which was torpedoed in 1942 and the Spartan in 1944.
The cruiser HMS Spartan off the coast of Italy providing support for the Anzio landings as part of Operation Shingle. While at anchor on the 29th of January 1944, Spartan was bombed at sunset by 18 enemy aircraft. A bomb blew a large hole in the upper deck, collapsing the mast and flooding the boiler room. The ship was set alight and keeled over to port. The crew abandoned ship and within just 10 minutes, the Spartan was on the seabed. Five officers and 41 ratings lost their lives.
Chief Petty Officer Norman Edward Harris HMS Manchester
My father, Chief Petty Officer Norman E Harris entered the Royal Navy in 1926. He joined HMS Manchester in 1938 and served on board until the ship returned from extensive repairs undertaken in Philadelphia, USA 1941/42. He took part in the celebrations that were organised at the launch of the third HMS Manchester, in 1980, and met up with at least one of his old pals (Dusty) that he served with so many years ago.
Kenneth George Uttley
My father Ken Uttley was aboard HMS Manchester when she was sunk by the Italians, and was interred by the Vichy French. I do not know his rank at the time, but he survived the war and had attained the rank of QMS on his retirement from the Marines.
Daniel Gillespie HMS Manchester
my father was on HMS Manchester at the time of its sinking in October 1942 and was interned at Laghouat POW camp in the Sahara Desert. He served in the Royal Marines.
Lt. Leslie Gustave Read HMS Manchester
My Grandfather Leslie Gustave Read was held as a POW in Laghouat, Tunisia after he fortunately survived the sinking of the ship on which he proudly served, HMS Manchester. We have numerous photos if him and several of his friends whilst still at the camp. Upon being liberated from the camp my grandfather served as Commanding Officer on HM LCT 644 and was mentioned in dispatches after his ship and his crew assisted in the rescue of survivers of HMCS Regina sunk by torpedo in the Plymouth area 08/08/1944.
Augustine Joseph "Jack" Lynch HMS Manchester
Hi, I am trying to find out more about my grandfather Augustine Lynch who served on HMS Manchester, HMS Glasgow and HMS Effingham (amongst other ships) in WW2. I have some entries from a diary he kept and also have some of his cap bands (hence knowing the names of the ships) but have little else. Once I have collated what I have I will add it to the site but in the meantime if anyone has any knowledge of his service I would be very grateful. Richard
Lt Cmdr. Eric Cole Sutton HMS Manchester
Account of the sinking of the HMS Manchester and following journey to Laghouat POW camp by Lft Commander Eric Cole Sutton dated from the 13th of August 1942
Thurs August 13th
0013 Torpedoed. Pathfinder came alongside and took off casualties and non essential personnel.
- 00430 Jumped over port side of Quarter deck. Picked up by a whaler and hung on for a while and then got in. Navigator at helm (Gill).
- 0530 Just after it got light an Italian plane let go torpedoes at the whip, but missed.
- 0540 Ship sunk
- 1100 Landed
- Two tribal destroyers arrived and picked up remaining fellows in rafts and Carley-floats. We just missed them.
My father told us that he was ordered to scuttle the ship and on opening the valves to sink the ship faster came back on deck to find that all life rafts had gone. Before this the six ‘scuttlers’ had looked for rum from the stores for ressusification but the cupboard was bare!
He said he swam for about ten hours and spent sometime floating on the surface due to torpedoes being fired in the vicinity to avoid being crushed by shock waves in the event of an explosion.
On arriving in Tunisia he said that they walked into an aerodrome and at first were not stopped as their uniforms were similar to the German Luftwaffe’s. Hence they gave themselves up.
We were taken to a nearby fort and had some chocolate, Horlicks tablets and biscuits to eat. During the afternoon we were driven to another camp called Bou-Fischa. We were given supper, sardines, tunny fish and brown bread and went to sleep in a wood hut, being supplied with one shee,t sleeping bag plus one blanket. Approximate distance from Tunis 70 kilometers.
Two Italian E boats were anchored inshore, plus two Italian planes were flying around where we landed. We saw one Stukka in a field, probably out of action.
The inhabitants of the villages we passed through came out to see us in force and appeared quite friendly. The French troops were definitely anti Italian and German. The troops were obviously frightened that we were all going to make a break for it.
Fri 14th–Sun 16th Spent in Bou-Fischa. Bathed in the sea twice. American consul took all our names, next of kin and addresses and sent them off to the admiralty.
Food consisted of macaroni, soup, one or two hunks of some meat, onions, potatoes, spaghetti, all mixed up and stewed hot. Some tins of sardines and tunny fish. A lot of brown bread, plenty of cheap red wine. Grapes and figs.
Routine- get up around 7.00 AM. Hot black coffee, very sweet. 12.30 lunch as above. 19.00 Supper as above. 22.30 Lights out. Washing from a few jets in a pipe. Heads squat, or preferably in a field, no paper. Only two meals.
I didn’t feel well for two days. Dog is rampant.
Mon 17th 11.30 thanked the American consul and the French for our treatment. Marched to a railway station about two or three miles away, and went to Tunis arriving 14.30 Changed trains.
The people were very pro allies, V signs everywhere. American consul had arranged crate fulls of beer, and between that and wine we did very well! The new guards taking over were in far greater force and not as friendly.
Tues 18th Train journey was terribly hot; dusty, no sleeping room and filthy heads
Weds 19th –Thurs 20th About twice a day we were given food in one of the stations. Usually consisted of bread , wine in large quantities and salads of onion, tomatoes, Swedes and sometimes soup.
We arrived at Djelfa at about 0800 We were then put into buses and driven to Laghouat after the usual shouting and gesticulating. We arrived here at 1200 and were searched, they found my £4 in the lining of my hat, and also took my French money. After lunch, Malin, Fletcher, Rambart, Cooper and I took over a room at the south west corner of the officers block. At the moment we are sleeping on double tiers of beds.
Fri 21st Issue of Red Cross stuff. (Perhaps this is a reference to the fact that my father told me that Red Cross parcels used to arrive full only of sand having been pilfered on the way)
Sun 23rd Display by Spahis (?)
Tues 25th Pillar of gate broken down and Cooper rung the bell (?)
Mon 24th Wrote home ………….
Nov 24th released from Laghouat and arrived home
My father later joined the Birmingham and sailed into Alexandria for repairs. He was in Copenhagen for VE day. His account seems similar to Ray Davies’ account on this site. Ray’s email on his story does not work. Does anyone know if he is still alive and contactable?
PO. Sidney Charles Albert Lansley HMS Manchester
My father Sidney Lansley served aboard HMS Manchester at the time of it being scuttled off the North African coast having been disabled by the Italian Navy attacking Operation Pedestal. He along with the ship's Commander were one of the last to leave the sinking ship having to swim to the coast line some 8 miles. Once ashore the crew were rounded up and taken by rail to the POW camp at Laghouat.
We have a telegram received from the Camp on 27 Aug 42 saying safe & well. My Mother was informed by the Commodore Naval Barracks Portsmouth 8 Sep 1942 that her husband was a survivor & had been interned at Laghouat.
Of.Tel. Kenneth Edgar John Trott HMS Manchester
Ken Trott served on HMS Manchester, was torpedoed and sent to Lagouat Internment Camp. I Would like to hear of any facts concerning him.
Able Sea. Ronald Rowland HMS Manchester
HMS Manchester was Ron Rowland's first posting when he joined the Navy at the age of 19 in 1941. After the ship was scuttled during Operation Pedestal, Ron became a prisoner of war at Laghouat camp. He said that the guards told them not to bother trying to escape because they were surrounded by desert and there was nowhere for them to go. But if they did try to escape, the guard said, they would be shot. Ron stayed at the camp until they were liberated; he said they woke up one morning and the guards had simply gone, having got word that the Allies' arrival was imminent. He brought back some sand from the Sahara in the broken off neck of a bottle. After a short leave of two weeks, Ron returned to duty aboard HMS Grenville, where he served in the British Pacific Fleet until the end of the war.
AbleSea. George Henry Wall HMS Manchester
My Father, George Wall was on HMS Manchester when she was sunk. He told me he was a POW and they had a very hard time of it. I have his certificate of service, which says he was a POW between the 14th of August and 24th of November 1942.
CPO. Samuel Nixon HMS Manchester
I am one of the nieces of Chief Petty Officer Samuel Nixon and have just discovered that our uncle served on HMS Manchester when it was torpedod in 1942. I believe there is a photo of Uncle Sam on the Manchester in a museum on Malta. We would love to hear more information.
WO. Arthur Kitchener Coulson HMS Manchester
My Dad Arthur Coulson served on HMS Manchester during WW2. He was a warrant officer, I believe, in charge of the weapons control systems and was involved right from commissioning in Newcastle (the shipyard had to use Glaswegians to translate as the southern officers could not understand the local accent) He was one of those who managed to swim to shore when the ship was torpedoed and ended up in the prison camp. His views of the Vichy French were unprintable but beyond that he wouldn't talk about it. He was also in Scapa Flow over Xmas when the fleet was expecting war to be declared and said that it was one of his most miserable Xmas's ever.
Stoker 1st Class. Herbert "Bert" Turner HMS Manchester (d.14th Aug 1941)
Bert (or Bertie as my grandmother used to call him) was 21 years old when the Manchester was hit and was one of the casualties. She understood that he died from oil that was in his lungs on 14.8.1941. He is buried in Malta Naval Cemetery and was the son of Herbert and Sarah Ann Turner of Middlesbrough. His full name is not used on his headstone - it reads Bert Turner.
Walter William "Knocker" White
My grandfather Walter William White was in the Navy, and was on the HMS Manchester when it was torpedoed in 1942. He swam to the shore and was imprisoned, I guess in Tunisia having read some of the other accounts.
I was just a few months old when he died in 1970 and so never got to know him. My uncle tells me that he (Walter) told him about what happened to Norman Greaves, so it was very poignant to read that account on the website.
PO Stoker Donald Jenson HMS Manchester
My father, Donald Jenson, served on HMS Manchester on the pedestal operation to Malta. The ship was scuttled he spent 8 hours in the sea and then was picked up by a U boat and taken to Tunisia. I would like to find out what camp he was in, date of release, etc as he died not long after aged 31.
Ord.Tel. Alan Charles Thomas HMS Manchester
My dad, Alan Charles Thomas, served on HMS Manchester, as an Ordinary Telegrapher, from April 1942, until its torpedo damage, and resultant scuttling in Aug, later that year. His time on Manchester, of which, I can state he was extremely and enduringly proud, started with Arctic Convoy duties inculding Spitzbergen and the notorious convoy P17, and culminated in Op Pedestal, and his imprisonment in Laghout in Algeria.
His description of that legendary swim to the Tunisan coast, fired my youthful imagination given its humorous detail, a ship-mate enduring the swim, with my dad's help as a very good swimmer, all the while clutching his knife and fork only to discovery that his POW diet was mostly a sand based soup! Typical British gallows humour, hiding from a small child the reality of his father being starved to half his body weight in just 3 months. Suffice to say that my mum refused ever to visit France because of the 'hospitality' of the Vichy French.
Able.Sea. Reginald Victor Harrison HMS Manchester
My father, Reginald Harrison, now deceased, served on HMS Manchester and was in a North African prisoner of war camp. He spoke very little of this time but we understand they were treated badly. He did not talk very much about his service. He also served on HMS King George V. but we have little information.
Able.Sea. Norman Milnes HMS Manchester
Norman Milnes was my father. He told me of his experience during the sinking of the Manchester, which very much accords with the stories here. As a radio operator, he had to go down to the radio station and retrieve the secret code books for wrapping up, weighting and dropping into the sea. He was one of those captured by the Vichy French and imprisoned.
John Thomas Brown HMS Manchester
My father Jack Brown was a seaman on board the HMS Manchester. He is still living today but I do not know a great deal about his time during the Second World War. I do know he was on the Manchester when she was torpedoed and that he survived to go to Lagouat POW camp. I believe he was in one of the life boats along with the captain after the ship was abandoned. After being rescued from Lagouat he ended up in the army and took part in various theatres of war until 1945.
I have just learned recently that during preparations for the D Day landings he took General Patton around the UK coastline looking for suitable places to practice the landings. I have searched web sites but I can not find any photos of this but it would be terrific to find a photo of my dad with Patton.
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