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HMS Coventry

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HMS Coventry in 1940
HMS Coventry in 1940
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A few days later we were off the Lofoten Islands escorting shipping in and out of Harstad and Narvik, where the Stukas came thick and fast. We never could get to like those screaming, howling vengeful harpies of Hades.

On the way to Norway we met a convoy of crippled ships under tow, including my old ship Penelope, limping their weary way back home after a spell around Narvik. It was not very encouraging for us on our way in. Still -- men must work -- and all the rest of it.

In Narvik Fjord we spent the day and night enjoying Norway's twenty-four hours' daylight going round and round like a goldfish in a bowl. My old stoker friend Jack put it more colourfully, 'like a turd in a pisspot'. Our engines never stopped and our guns were seldom silent. We were an ideal target for Stukas and J.U. 88 dive-bombers. Even the high-level attackers found us easy to aim for. However, skilled navigation, the use of a bomb sight to predict the direction of falling bombs and the very rapid fire of the four-inch guns putting up a massive barrage of flak kept us, and our charges, mostly unscathed, but we were not allowed much sleep when sunset and dawn seemed to come both at the same time.

On quite a few occasions we tried to load ammunition from a lighter but had to cut the ropes and get away quickly before we even started. The Luftwaffe always seemed to know what we were doing. Then one of our bridge lookouts said that he had noticed a motor cyclist on a nearby hill who would come out of a hut and drive along the hillside whenever we went near an ammunition lighter or an oiler. Next time the cyclist appeared a burst from our pom-pom seemed to discourage him and we managed to fill up our magazines and fuel tanks without much interruption.

It was only when the weather deteriorated and sometimes brought a few hours of low ceiling that we could get on with any normal work. On one such occasion I had to take the motor cutter and a working party to see what could be salvaged from a store ship which had been damaged and forced to run aground. Another time when everything seemed to be quiet and we had no reports of enemy aircraft, part of our action watch was stood down and most of the lads went straight to the wash place and stripped off for a quick wash. Almost immediately the alarm rattlers screamed and the men had to dash back to their posts. I wondered what would be in the minds of the bomber crews if they came close enough to see that some of the guns were manned by naked men! The gun loaders had to watch what they were taking hold off.

Near the end of May we left Harstad with our sister ship H.M.S. Cairo and two Tribal class destroyers and steamed north escorting the heavy cruiser H.M.S. Effingham which was loaded with British troops with the intention of landing reinforcements in the port of Bodo. It was a fine clear evening as we steamed on through Bodo Fjord, the powerful Effingham leading the squadron.

Effingham, in Norwegian waters
Effingham, in Norwegian waters
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By a wonderful stroke of luck the Luftwaffe were busy elsewhere and left us alone to get on with our work which, for once, the Germans seemed not to know about. I had just come down from my lookout duties at the end of the second dogwatch when we realised something had gone horribly wrong.

With a grinding crash and clouds of dense black smoke the big cruiser drove herself on to a reef which nobody knew was there, and tore the very heart out of her. We turned hard over to avoid ramming her and ran aground ourselves for our trouble. One of the Tribal class destroyers had to copy our mishap and ran aground as well. Jack said it was 'The best "hard on" he'd seen for a long time!'

After much jumping up and down on the quarterdeck like demented chimpanzees we managed to shake ourselves free, coming away with a ruptured fuel tank -- not the only thing ruptured that day! The grounded destroyer got herself free but suffered a damaged propeller. We were not too seriously hurt with a bit of luck, but the Effingham (sailors had another name for her) was a complete write-off. Fortunately, there were no casualties and we were not spotted by the German forces so we were able to lift off the cruiser's passengers and crew without anybody getting his feet wet, except for one soldier who was full of drink and fell over the side. He was fished out none the worse for wear.

The destroyers ferried the men to other ships and we got under way again on a return journey, standing to action stations all night. We had about twelve hundred British soldiers crammed below decks. We were told by their officers that they had just had supper and would not require being fed so they were left to look after themselves -- and didn't they just.

We landed the troops at Harstad the next morning and as there seemed to be no immediate danger of air attack half the watch stood down and went to their mess deck. What a mess they had to face. All the food in the shelves had been devoured. A week's ration of canned fruit and vegetables had been emptied. They must have been hungry!

The British infantryman is probably the bravest and best foot soldier in the world. He has proved his worth all over the globe since times long past despite all that has beset him. The poor old gravel crunchers have had to put up with an awful lot. But these young soldiers, who had been our guests, were inexperienced, poorly equipped and completely demoralised. They had been up against Quisling forces as well as crack German troops so they did not know who they were fighting and they had no faith at all in their commanders. Whoever was at fault this was not the best of form to say the least, but it certainly opened our eyes to what the other Services were coping with.

As soon as we had disembarked our passengers and tidied the mess decks up a bit we moved to Lavangs Fjord to refuel from a tanker which was under attack most of the time from both high-level and dive-bombers. For the next week, night and day in the land of the midnight sun we, and the rest of the 20th Cruiser Squadron, endured repeated bombing. We were getting rid of thousands of rounds of four-inch and pom-pom ammunition every two or three days so that we were clearing our deck lockers and magazines almost faster than we could replenish them. We also had to take the chance of keeping the ammunition barge alongside and hope that we could prevent her being blown up and us along with her. Then every available man had to go like the clappers to heave the shells aboard and get them stored. It was some job but, tired as we were, we managed somehow.

Stocking up the magazines was not an easy task, but getting the shells to the quick-firing guns was a performance that the best of stage farces could not have equalled. There was a chute from the magazine in the bowels of the ship going up to the deck space or 'flat' which was closest to the gun mountings. My action station when I was not up aloft was the sickbay flat which appeared to be so called because the sickbay was there. From the deck head above the chute was suspended a wooden pulley block through which was passed a rope. One end of the rope was attached to a metal frame called a 'cruet' which held four fixed ammunition four-inch calibre shells while the other end went round the driving wheel of the electric motor in the magazine below. The shells were sent up on the cruet to the flat and the supply party would take them from there to the gun deck by hand. If one shell had slipped from its not very safe hold it could have blown up the magazine and the rest of us with it. The Admiral would not have liked that! When the gun crews required ammunition, shouted commands had to be relayed to the men down below, usually cooks, stewards or supply ratings.

Those who thought up these anti-aircraft ships believed that small ammunition lockers beside the guns would hold plenty of shells to support whatever barrage was required to destroy the two or three high-level bombers attacking the convoy, and the supply parties would then be able to replace the stocks as soon as the action ceased.

As usual, the experts knew Sweet Fanny Adams about it!

In the real world the dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers came in thick and fast and our guns developed a ferocious appetite which we had to satisfy with all the speed we could muster. I thought the quickest way to deliver the goods after I had shouted down the chute, 'Send them up, Freddie', or something similar, was to run up the ladder to the gun deck and bend double over the guardrail to grab each shell as it was lifted up to me. I then passed it on to one of the gun crew who shoved it into the rack. Very often there was not even time for that and I just handed the overgrown bullet direct to the loader who had it fused, loaded and fired by the time I came with the next one. It was very good exercise for the stomach muscles if you cared for that sort of thing but I had never planned to be a weight-lifter and after or hour or two of this routine the shells seemed to be as heavy as me.

These same planners also believed that we would always face the enemy head on or broadside and the ships were armed accordingly. But these German airmen did not play the game by our rules and preferred to attack a ship from astern, straight out of the sun if possible, bless you Jack and all the rest of it. This meant that the after guns were the first to run out of ammunition and had to be provided from the forward magazines by the good old forward supply party. The only way we could manage this operation was for each of us to put a shell on his shoulder and run as fast as a tomcat with two yards start on the vet, at the same time trying to keep our balance on the tossing, jumping deck taking cover whenever possible, while the shrapnel from falling flak or near misses seemed to be seeking each of us out for its own amusement.

What a bleedin' performance!

Since it came to be my duty to lead the way I was eternally grateful to the stoker who always ran along with me. Jack, who came from Wigan, was a natural comic -- everything be said was funny. It was a great morale-booster to hear him reciting the Naval version of the epic poems written by Robert Service or Rudyard Kipling, hardly pausing for breath, except to utter a four letter word when something nasty came whizzing over our heads a wee bit close as we struggled our way to the quarterdeck and back. He was also right with me whenever we had to carry out our emergency duties such as tying up or letting go moorings while the seamen, who normally did the work, were too busy firing the guns for their more mundane jobs.

Jack was a laugh a minute. He had a daytime job as chief stoker's messman and when he came to collect their rum ration he could not just call out the mess number like everybody else, but had to come out with a long spiel, 'Jack Tar, R.F.R., thirty-eight, Tiffies' mate, always late, make him wait'. When he had collected the issue he would leave with the parting words, 'I shall go now, but if I should return in my absence, please detain me until I get back when I shall deal with me, wilt tha?' If somebody tried to make fun of him he would say, 'You can go and piss up my back and see how I like it, wilt tha?' Jack usually ended a sentence with 'Wilt tha?'

I learned a great deal from dear old Jack and I fairly missed him after he left the ship.

During brief spells when the bombers were less persistent, British Army Royal Engineers assisted by Royal Marines from H.M.S. Curlew managed to construct a landing strip at nearby Skaanland and a few Gloucester Gladiators and Hurricanes were able to come to our help. They were hopelessly outnumbered but it did make a difference. One fighter was worth a lot of guns -- but don't tell that to the Admirals! Unfortunately they arrived too late to prevent Curlew being blown to bits before the disbelieving eyes of the men who had just completed work on the temporary runway. Cairo was also damaged but managed to carry on.

Curlew bombed and sinking off Skaanland - May 1940
Curlew bombed and sinking off Skaanland - May 1940
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By this stage we urgently needed to clean boilers and to re-line some of the guns. The only way we could get peace to do this was to steam away somewhere up around the North Cape into a blizzard so that we could shut down one boiler at a time, letting the stokers slave away at the scraping and chipping as soon as it was cool enough. Not the regulation way of doing things but some of us also managed to get a few hours' rest at the same time. Forty-eight hours later we were back in the thick of it.

It was planned that a force of British, French and Norwegian troops would invade, capture and destroy Narvik to deny its use to the enemy and for this a good bombardment was essential. The question was who did we have to do the shooting? There was only one heavy cruiser left in the area so the two anti-aircraft ships had to use our high-angled guns to fire at the shore installations. This was not a very easy task. The men had to reach above their heads to load the guns. Salvos from shore batteries splashed in the water just short of us but we were not hit. I don't suppose we hit anything either.

Fighter planes from the newly built airstrip had temporarily won control of the cloudless sky so that we were able to carry out the bombardment and land the troops in peace. But in the early morning, fog grounded our own fighter aircraft and the waiting J.U. 88s came tearing in like dogs at dinnertime.

Our luck still held but the other ships were not so fortunate. H.M.S. Cairo received two direct hits causing a number of casualties. She survived the onslaught but had to be sent home, stopping on the way to bury her dead. She took the survivors from Curlew home with her.

HMS Cairo in May 1939
HMS Cairo in May 1939
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So far, we had lost only one man through enemy action. Our sister ships had spent more time here than we had and had been fighting in this beautiful deadly place while we were still undergoing repairs, but a few of the lads were already becoming a bit 'bomb happy'. We could do with a night's sleep and we were longing for a decent meal. In the thick of the day-to-day action, three of us had to sit a written examination for supply petty officer which had to be taken on the specified date or not at all, regardless of circumstances! The show must go on! Therefore Pete, 'Spud', and I sat ourselves down in separate offices and spent the day trying to concentrate on the unfamiliar questions whilst listening to the blasts of gunfire above us and the thumps and shudders of near misses exploding in the water. Pete, who took everything in his stride, passed with flying colours but 'Spud' and I would have to wait until next year -- or maybe the year after that. We should not have been fighting when there were exams to sit!

There must have been previous experience of continuous day and night action but none of us knew of any instructions laid down with regard to feeding the men at their action stations, particularly on an old ship like this on 'canteen messing' where each mess was geared to look after its own catering. Until the Invergordon Mutiny in the late twenties their Lordships had not considered the welfare of the lower deck sailors to be of any particular importance. They had allowed the men a ration of essential victuals which was considered enough to keep them fighting fit and expected them to be jolly well grateful for it. After Invergordon, new ships were fitted out with a proper galley staffed by trained cooks, and sailors were given a varied menu with a proper balanced diet. They were not exactly overfed but at least they had sufficient -- and sometimes more than most of them had been used to in Civvy Street.

The chief cook and the supply chief had to figure out some sort of meal which could be devoured by the men during a brief lull in the battle. Soup would have been a good 'filler' but we had no means of cooking and serving it up so it was decided that the best idea would be sandwiches, lots and lots of sandwiches, with either tea, coffee or cocoa. Our tough old bakers could produce any amount of the finest bread whatever the conditions. There was plenty of corned beef in the hold and, even better still, we had a load of tinned skinless sausages which we had salvaged from a damaged stores ship recently. Whenever we had a quiet spell we set about slicing, spreading and brewing like a frenzy of Women's Institute ladies at a jubilee jamboree. The doorstep sandwiches may not have been suitable for a Royal garden party, but the eagerly awaited sustenance was appreciated by those to whom it was delivered by the sturdy vassals of the forward supply party moving as quickly as their tired legs would allow.

For strategic reasons the rum issue had to be delayed until the second dogwatch when it was usually possible to stand down a few of the hands at a time.

When I suggested to the chief pusser that there was no standard accountancy procedure for this method of victualling, and our actions would probably make the pen-pushers at Whitehall demand that we be hung from the highest yardarm in the British navy, his unconcerned reply was, 'We have an Admiral on board and that old bugger can easily sign something'.

In the midst of all this stramash the unsung hero of the day was the N.A.A.F.I. canteen manager. He was an elderly retired man who had volunteered his services as soon as war broke out. A kindly, moderate person, he was probably the oldest man on the ship, and a civilian at that, yet he dashed around from the bridge to the bilges, wherever men were on duty. He carried a suitcase packed with cigarettes, chocolate and any other item he thought the sailors might require. If they did not have the ready cash he would accept their word that they would see him later. I don't think anyone let him down. His little suitcase seemed to carry everything and, for a wager, somebody asked him for a back collar stud which he produced without a twinkle of an eye.

The men looked forward to seeing his cheery face and he was probably the best pick-me-up the ship's company ever had. He lived in the chief petty officer's mess and when he left the ship on our return to the U.K., his messmates gave him a lovely handmade scroll of appreciation which he said he would treasure for the rest of his life. Such men are never considered to be heroes. I wonder why?

By the end of May we had gone three weeks with hardly a wink of sleep. We became so tired that if we had a quiet moment we just dozed off wherever we were. We hardly dared to take off our clothes which were only underpants a boiler suit and gym shoes but we tried to get a bit of a wash whenever we could. It was remarkable how we seemed to become wide-awake as soon as the guns opened fire.

The worst of it was that we had no idea what was going on outside our own little world. Those in charge must have believed that we were too dumb to be told anything. Of course, many officers in all the services at the start of the war were as thick as two planks themselves. They had a standard reply if asked anything, 'You are not paid to think. Do as you are told and get on with your work'.

Unknown to us here in Norway, Hitler's troops had started to attack the west and had very quickly overran Belgium, Holland and half of France. A British rescue fleet made up of warships, merchant ships and hundreds of small civilian pleasure craft had lifted off a large part of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk and other places. Among the rescuers was our sister ship Calcutta whom we had thought was still around here with us.

The top brass here knew what they were doing -- we supposed. H.Q. had already decided to end the battle the men had believed they were winning and planned to withdraw the British and French forces from Norway, leaving the Norwegian army to hold on as long as possible, until they were forced to capitulate. They did not tell the Norwegians either, having been taught to be cautious.

At the end of May we started the evacuation. It was our first experience of this development in modern warfare. It was not going to be our last.

We began taking loaded ships out and empty ships in. We had to confuse the enemy whose grand fleet was hanging around waiting for us. We also had to hide our intentions from the poor unsuspecting soldiers of the gallant Norwegian Army who were trying to hold back the advancing Germans.

Probably the most confused people were ourselves.

For the first week of June we provided cover for the small ships carrying the Allied troops from the shore to the troopers. We acted as a staging post while this was going on. Amongst those we had aboard temporarily was a French Foreign Legion Alpine Unit. I managed to converse a little with one of those tough fighters. He said they were surprised that they had had to spike some of the British guns which had just been abandoned and left to the enemy. Another of these chaps had taken the identity discs from all the Germans he had killed and had them attached to his waist as if he were a Red Indian with enemy scalps. Actually he was of Polish nationality.

Eventually, in early June, after we had gathered in all the allied soldiers we could find we left And Fjord with two destroyers to join forces with a convoy of eight transports carrying about ten thousand men. With them were a heavy cruiser, an aircraft carrier, and seven destroyers. A County class cruiser carrying the Norwegian Royal Family raced on ahead. In the convoy was a transport ship filled with German prisoners of war, and for reasons known only to Hermann Wilhelm Goering and his Luftwaffe pilots this particular vessel seemed to be the main target for the high-level bombers, so we had to defend the bloody enemy as well!

The German fleet including Scharnhorst and Gneisenau failed to find us for which we uttered many a prayer of thanks. They did make contact with the aircraft carrier Glorious and her escorts and blew them all out of the water -- killing about two thousand men. These included the brave Royal Air Force pilots who had flown their Hurricanes and Gladiators from the new airstrip at Skaanland and succeeded in landing them on the carrier's flight deck. It was a skilful and daring operation but it was all for nothing.

As usual, the British Home Fleet was searching in the wrong part of the war area at the time.

After a few days of long-range bombing attacks and the occasional U-boat scare we shepherded the convoy into the Clyde where we anchored in the safe port of Greenock. There we spent the next two days cleaning the ship and taking on stores and ammunition.

We had surely served our apprenticeship now!

The rest of Britain had learned a thing or two as well. The war had only just started and already we had our backs to the wall. Neville Chamberlain's government caved in and had to be re-organised into a coalition under the leadership of Winston Churchill with Clem Atlee as his deputy. He promised us blood, toil, tears and sweat and he was not far wrong. We certainly had plenty of sweat, anyway.

A few officers and ratings were sent to hospital suffering from stress and exhaustion -- some said 'bomb happy'! Everybody's nerves were a bit frayed by now but a night ashore in Glasgow with a visit to the famous long bar helped to revive our drooping spirits. It is wonderful what a drop of the amber liquid can do for a body.

Rear Admiral Vivian transferred his flag to H.M.S. Cairo after saying goodbye and telling us he would not recommend anybody in the squadron for a decoration but he would ask that we should all be given a good spell of leave. So we sailed around to Wallsend on Tyne shipyard and were granted three days' leave each watch, half of which was spent travelling and the rest of it sleeping.

Wallsend was the yard where this ship was born so it was fitting that she should be sent back there for treatment in her declining years. We sojourned there for about three weeks which included a spell in dry dock where we could not use our own 'heads'. We were allowed to go to the toilets provided for the shipyard workers and I was intrigued on entering the hallowed edifice by way of a turnstile controlled by an unhappy looking clerk behind a small window who appeared to be clocking us in and out. 'Wee Jimmy' who was a 'dockyard matey' by profession told us that 'the regulation time allowed for a sh*te was ten minutes and if it took you any longer you forfeited half-an-hour's wages which in his case as an apprentice was about one penny but it could be as much as ninepence for a journeyman'.

We had a few runs ashore into Newcastle which was a great town with several theatres, some grand new cinemas and lots of fine pubs. The Geordies were wonderful people who went out of their way to make the sailors welcome and we had plenty of fun. One evening, when travelling on a crowded bus, a young supply rating mess mate of ours Whom we called 'Witty' was somewhat taken aback when the woman sitting next to him began to breast feed her baby. The bairn did not seem to fancy his menu and she said in a loud whisper, 'If ye dinna take it I'll give it to this gentleman here.'

His face was even more crimson when he alighted from the bus to a rousing cheer from his fellow travellers.

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