Tel (S) George Smith
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"The ships would then circle the given location and drop depth charges in the hope of hitting the U Boat, sometimes successful and sometimes not."
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Having given an account of my first draft in the Royal Navy as a Special Telegraphist, to North Russia via a Russian Convoy, and my stay in the Arctic north of Murmansk near the coast and the Barents Sea, my work there was recording via W/T the Enigma Code, transmitted by the Germans. At the end of my account I mentioned the Western Approaches briefly and Ceylon. I would like to give a more comprehensive account of the Western Approaches.
Within a short time after my return from Russia, including seven days leave (I must mention here that on arriving home at Middleton Road, Dalston E8 my mother looked for a moment as if I had appeared as a ghost because, I think, she never expected to see me again after a Russian Convoy in which so many ships and men were lost.) I was drafted to the Western Approaches to become a member of the crew on HMS Hotspur, a destroyer, in my own capacity as a Telegraphist Special Branch. There were three of us in three watches, ie we worked alone in a cabin amid ship on the upper deck, incidentally by a large gun, which was dangerous if your heavy door was not secured and the gun was fired. The blast was the problem.
To return to the time when we left Chatham barracks to board the Hotspur, a complete new crew travelled t Barrow in Furniss where the ship was being repaired after action at sea. We travelled by steam train, of course, it was January 1945. We all settled in the various mess decks and claimed the various hooks on the bulkheads for our hammocks. The repairs were still being finishes at the same time. In a day or two we set off for the Clyde in Scotland to give the Destroyer trials before going out to sea. This was a somewhat tedious business, at one time I was up in the ‘crows nest’ calling out numbers to the officers below for 4 hours.
Eventually the ship was fit for sea, in the meantime our nearest destination for a few hours shore leave, was Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth Bridge, where we went dancing at the Mecca and stayed the night at the YMCA. Time of return to the ship was 7.30am. We put out to sea!
As a matter of note, the ladies in Tottenham knitted woollies for the crew of their adopted ship, HMS Hotspur.
The Hotspur’s base was Liverpool Docks. The period at sea was, as it turned out, until just after the end of the German War. Our sea time took us several times through the Bay of Biscay to Gibraltar, half way to America, up to the North Atlantic, the English Channel and around Scotland etc. all three of us telegraphists worked alone, as I have mentioned before, so I would like to give you an idea of this particular job, 4 hours at a time on watch. In the cabin were two wireless (radio) sets, one receiver and one transmitter, two phones – one to broadcast and one to the Bridge (ie the Captain), and of course headphones etc.
We were listening and taking down Morse Code from broadcasts. The special work was to identify U boats (German submarines) from the short message they transmitted on sighting a target vessel or convoy, to their base in Norway. The U Boat signal was recognised by their special Morse call sign. The message was very short and quick, but just enough to get a bearing on them by a special compass installed in the cabin. I would immediately phone the Captain on the Bridge and tell him the approximate position of the enemy U Boat (he would be completely ignorant of the danger) and then we would contact the senior vessel, by code, to compare the bearings my opposite number had taken, and a third from the other ship. (The three destroyers were Hotspur, Hesperus and Havoc. The ships would then circle the given location and drop depth charges in the hope of hitting the U Boat, sometimes successful and sometimes not. The force of these explosions sometimes almost lifted the stern of the vessel out of the water.
On one apparent hit at a submarine, oil came up and some debris. A terrific cheer went up from those on deck but I was taken aback by this. I knew there were men down there, like us in many ways, and we were killing them. Nevertheless, if the situation was reversed, if they could, they would kill us.
Time went on and it was a self catering system on board, the members of each mess deck prepared their own food and the cook cooked it. We always exceeded our mess bill. I was twenty years old and in line for a daily tot of rum, a Navy tradition. It was issued before midday and after that you could eat anything! Navy rum was strong.
Apart from hunting the U Boats we also had escort duties, escorting large ships from Gibraltar to the UK, the three destroyers in line, diagonally in front of the large ship, guarding it from enemy submarines. We escorted the Luc Pasteur (French presumably) and at another time the battleship HMS Renown. It was on this trip that a man was lost from the Hotspur. The Hotspur was an old ship, built in approximately 1936, and at the time I was doing my work on board the Hesperas going back to Portsmouth. The Renown being the senior vessel was forcing the pace at 26 knots. On board the Hesperas someone said to me on deck, “Look at your ship, George!” it was really in trouble trying to maintain the speed, dipping and rolling badly.
The next thing we heard was that a man who had served in the Royal Navy for 15 years had gone overboard. A message was flashed back to Renown for permission to go back after the sailor and find him if possible. Permission refused, we were told to keep pace and carry on. So rather than risk a sudden attack, a man was sacrificed off the Hotspur. Who knows what a terrible shock and the feelings of despair that man must have suffered when he saw the ships disappear into the distance leaving him to die a terrible death in a vast ocean.
The Hotspur arrived in Portsmouth for a day or two, and the lost man’s belongings were auctioned to raise some money to give to his next of kin. The pathetic items were bought by the crew – 10/- for a vest, for example, and then they were discarded. Twenty pounds was raised but there was no known next of kin s the money was given to a woman friend of his in Portsmouth.
We went to sea again to continue the hunt. By this time, in 1945, we were the hunters and the U boats were the hunted. On one more trip to Gibraltar, I and some others managed to go ashore for a few hours and, lo and behold, we all bought bananas on stalks to send back home when we reached the UK again. The destroyer was like a banana boat – the British had not seen bananas for a long time.
The German war as drawing to a close. When we arrived at our base, the Liverpool Docks, we managed shore leave which meant travelling on the overhead railway to the town. We used two dance halls, the Mecca and the Grafton Rooms, and many happy hours were spent there. Sleep was catered for, for a few hours, at a rather doubtful place in Lime Street for 1/- (a shilling). It was necessary to sleep with anything of value under your pillow, even your shoes!
On our last trip to Gibraltar, on escort duties, we were near home when I received a message in ‘plain language’ (which was unusual) ‘SPLICE THE MAINBRACE’. On enquiring to a Telegraphist Petty Officer on board, I was told this meant a double tot of rum. It was Winston Churchill’s way of letting us know the war was over.
Just before we arrived off the Welsh coast, the captain decide to get rid of the odd depth charge, so there was an announcement on the loudspeaker, “Hands to fishing stations” because when this happened, many large fish were expected to come to the surface, stunned or dead. Many rushed to the side of the destroyer but only a small tiddler floated by.
We passed a floating mine, not far from the ship. We shot at it with rifles to try and explode it, but we had no luck.
We anchored some distance from Liverpool and we could hear all the celebrations going on ashore over the radio. We mistakenly thought we would be able to go ashore but no, two days later we were on our way to Norway, up the fjord to Trondheim. All along the banks and on the hills were Norwegians, waving and cheering when they spotted the Union Jack on the three destroyers. We docked at Trondheim, the Hotspur was last to dock.
I was with a companion on my walk through the main part of the town and I called into a hat shop and chose a rather attractive ladies hat which I thought would please a special girlfriend in London, named Gwen, when I got home. The lady assistant stared straight through me when serving my purchase until she suddenly realised we were not German sailors, by our uniforms, and then she could not do enough for us.
We walked into a bar with half swing doors – like something out of the Wild West! We tried half a pint of beer which was poor quality. A man came over to us and said in good English, “I am delighted to meet you. Please can I have one of your cigarettes? Thank you. I have not spoken English since before the war as it was too dangerous. I will come with you around the town and show you some things.” He was pleasant company, and among other things he showed us where the Germans had shot people that did not please them for whatever reason. We said goodbye to our friend, and stood by a wall having a smoke. On casting half a cigarette down, three men dived for it. A large open car came by and people started waving and cheering. The man in the car waved at us. On enquiring who he was, we were told he was Prince Olaf, he had returned from England.
Before we returned to the ship, two SS officers in full regalia stood and stared at us. They were fully armed and we were not. We just stared back and they abruptly turned and strode off. We continued on our way. There were many released prisoners of whatever nationality roaming the streets in sort of green dungarees. They fled from us in panic, thinking we were German sailors! We finally left for Liverpool after about two days.
On arriving at Liverpool, I and others were destined to go to Chatham barracks, having left the Hotspur On our way through the docks, I witnessed U Boats, very rusty, with German sailors on the decks under some sort of guard.
I was given 18 days ‘in from sea’ leave to go home to my family in London’s East End, and to see my girlfriend, Gwen, who lived in Tottenham.
On returning to Chatham I was put on a course of Japanese Morse at Wimbledon in a Shell Mex property, used by the Navy. Eventually I was sent out to Ceylon, but after the Japanese war ended, so my WT services were no longer needed.
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