A Worm's-eye-View in '42
An Ordinary Seaman's Dieppe
Lt. Cdr. Roy S. Portchmouth, CD, RCN (Ret'd)
"There will be no shore leave. Ship is under Sailing Orders," The Bosn's Mate made his way through the ship with his dismal confirmation of what all on board the Hunt class destroyer HMS Brocklesby had anticipated since securing to a buoy in Portsmouth Harbour that summer morning of 18th August 1942,' The whole harbour was alive with preparation by a growing number of vessels, and rumour was running high.
'Dhobi, dhobi, dhobi, never go ashore,
Then you'll never muster at the Sick Bay door.'
The old sailor's adage ran through my mind as the soapy water ran through my fingers. Being but a month on board since completing New Entry Training I did not yet comprehend its real meaning, supposing it to allude to the general sort of germs one might pick up when venturing ashore from such clean conditions as we were supposed to maintain in His Majesty's ships. I was making the best of being confined aboard by doing some laundry in a bucket on the quarterdeck. This had probably been prompted by the desire for an escape from speculation, but I had decided it would also accomplish a number of things. First it would ensure the possession of a spotless 'white front' shirt and white lanyard so that there would be no doubt about being allowed ashore when leave was again granted.
Secondly it would avoid my having to patronize the Ship's Dhobi Firm. I was suspicious of that organization because of the 3-badge Able Seaman who ran it. These badges looked like the Army's stripes, but unlike the Army's, they did not indicate any rank. They were awarded only in recognition of years of undetected crime, officially described as Good Conduct. If a man had no rank above Able Seaman to go with his GC Badges it could be assumed that he had not been anxious for responsibility, yet had learned how to keep his nose clean so as not to lose any privileges, while simultaneously avoiding involvement in anything of a disagreeable nature or which may impose upon his convenience, such as cleaning duties, or watchkeeping, etc. The length of an AB's dedication to this accomplished life-style was indicated by the number of GC Badges worn. A man possessing the maximum of three was therefore always accorded the respect this called for, by being addressed as 'Stripey', – but never trusted. Strangely, a certain deference always seemed to be shown to him, however, even by his superiors, let alone by Ordinary Seamen. Furthermore, I had run afoul of this one at noon meal time on only my second day in the ship by having the temerity to ask him whether he knew what was for 'afters' that day. I was still smarting from his reply.
"It doesn't surprise me that you don't know who your mother is, – or even where you are, but what makes you think I'm your bleed'n' mother and you're already in the wardroom with the rest of the pigs? For your information, this is Canteen Messin' and we don't 'ave no 'afters' down 'ere mate. We 'ave duff, – with two choices. That's duff if any sod 'as made one, and fuck-all if 'e 'asn't. So the rules in this mess is 'If ya wants a duff, make a bastard!' – and you can make one for me for offendin' my fuckin' sensibilities with your fuckin' stupid question, and, of course, as a small token of your esteem."
Then, so as to leave me in no doubt about his authority over all that lived in his domain, he picked up a passing cockroach from the mess table and ate it. I still had not made him a duff, – and he would not have my washing either!
Last but not least, my personal enterprise with a bar of 'Pusser's Hard' soap I was using in the bucket would enable me to put in a concentrated effort on my sailor's collar, to try to get it a paler shade of blue. I might be going to sea in my first ship for only the third time, but I didn't have to look like it. My previous attempt to mature a collar the easier way, by bleaching it, had produced a piebald effect, which proved totally unacceptable to the Officer of the Day. So I had been compelled to purchase a new one from the 'Pusser's' Clothing Store.
The green shore, still with its occasional reminders of civilization and near-normality in places, lay tantalizingly and hopelessly out of reach only a few hundred yards away. 'Wonder if there will be leave tomorrow or the next day? There must be a tomorrow and the next day, mustn't there?' I usually felt fairly sure about that, but there were times when doubt had to be deliberately pushed from the mind and this was one of them.
The Ship's Company was accustomed to frequent frightening forays against enemy destroyers off the French coast prior to the couple of quiet coastal convoys in which I had so far participated, and some took sadistic delight in passing on to a newcomer their grim assessment of the chances of survival under a skipper who was apparently fearless. This fact was substantiated of course by the decorations he had already received. You don't get the navy's second highest award for valour through normal behaviour! One cheerful soul even predicted, correctly as it turned out, "The Old Man'll probably earn 'imself another one tomorrow, – if we're not all dead first!" It certainly seemed as though my baptism of fire at sea was going to be part of a much larger operation than the ship had been involved in before. Anticipation and apprehension once more renewed their duel for control of the mind, and shrank the appetite.
"What's the buzz?" That almost universal daily question had, in the last twenty-four hours, received as many answers as there had been questioners and it was not worth asking any more. We'd soon know anyway. The big troopship alongside in the dockyard was now so full the upper decks were crowded to the rails. So at least it was becoming apparent that it would hardly be an entirely naval affair. A larger scale St. Nazaire perhaps?
"D'ye hear there? Clear lower decks to the forward mess deck. Clear lower decks to the forward mess deck."
We crowd in. Now the air is buzzing and stifling. Every man strains to see and hear over or around the man in front of him. The 'Crusher' calls for "Silence!" The First Lieutenant reports to the Captain. Lt. Cdr. Nigel Pumphrey, DSO, DSC, RN enters. He wastes no time with preliminaries. "At dawn tomorrow morning a very large scale raid will be launched against Hitler's Atlantic Wall and we shall be a part of it, sailing later this evening. The raid will be carried out by nearly 5,000 Canadian troops and over 1,000 Commandos and Royal Marines, with 50 American Rangers included – to get some experience. Brocklesby's role, in conjunction with the other seven Hunt class destroyers supporting this operation will be to escort the troopships and landing craft safely to their destinations, cover the landings, engage enemy shore batteries, and bombard enemy positions in support of our troops while they are ashore, which will be for approximately nine hours, the withdrawal being completed by about 1400. We shall initially be in company with the Polish destroyer Slazak, guarding the eastern flank against any enemy destroyers or E-boats approaching from that direction, and Slazak will be our Senior Officer during that first phase. After that we shall act as required by the Naval Force Commander in Calpe, which is the HQ destroyer, with Fernie as secondary HQ. We shall engage all enemy surface craft or aircraft coming within range. And on that point remember there'll be a lot of RAF aircraft over there as well tomorrow and I don't want any more mistakes! Finally we are to cover the evacuation and re-embarkation of the troops and ensure their safe return to England. Any questions – no – alright – carry on Number One."
"Aye, aye, Sir." The Captain leaves and the First Lieutenant dismisses the Ship's Company while we are still wondering which question to ask first.
'So that's it. Not the Second Front exactly.' No one had seriously thought that was a possibility anyhow. 'Something a lot bigger than another commando raid, that's certain. But will it be enough to help the hard-pressed Russians?' Such a question was natural, on the lower deck at least, where there was great sympathy for the plight of the Russians at that time. Then, like all other questions occurring to lower ranks in war, it had to be put in its place, – out of mind. It was replaced by recollection of what the captain had just said about mistakes in aircraft recognition.
So the story I had been so cheerfully told was probably true, and the ship not only had the two Stukas which were painted on the funnel as battle honours to its credit, but a RAF Wellington as well. Apparently the bomber had been returning across The Channel very low because it had been badly shot-up and was unable to gain height. Neither could it deviate from its course if it was to have any chance of making it home. Visibility was poor. A watchful gunner in Brocklesby suddenly spotted it coming, decided it was a German about to deliver a torpedo or low level bombing attack, and promptly put it out of its misery.
Earlier in the war there had been a number of cases of ships withholding their fire against aircraft until more positive identification could be made and consequently being successfully attacked by the plane in question. Hence the general naval tendency now to err on the side of the safety of the ship.
But the man who told me the story had done so with no note of regret. In fact I'm sure he would have been happy to see the Wellington added to the other two proud victories on the funnel. "Bloody Brylcreem Boys. Serves 'em right", he had added. And I was not so new in the Senior Service as to even be surprised by his sentiments.
By late evening we were following a sister destroyer and other ships past an intensely interested crowd of onlookers waiting for the Gosport ferry. 'Wonder if there's a spy amongst that lot?' Their curiosity had no doubt been increasingly stimulated for at least two days through the general preparations by the extraordinary number of craft of all types now in harbour, followed by all the troop arrivals. We Hunt class destroyers played our customary 'A-Hunting We Will Go' over our upper deck loud-speakers, and to this was being added an unusual sound. It was the army's equivalent war-cry being played by a lone piper on the quarterdeck of our next-ahead. A brave sound indeed coming across the waters as, in the gathering dusk a reddening sky lent further dramatic effect for the onlookers and, for the sailing soldiers and others, the promise of a fine day, – for dying. By the grace of God there is a basic optimistic faith in the hearts of the immortal young and few of them would have believed they were watching their last sunset. Few of any age would have guessed that more than a thousand of all ages were, with well over a further two thousand to be wounded or prisoners, or both, tomorrow.
The night was dark and uneventful as we followed the minesweepers through their swept channels, black water lapping gently at our sides, almost undisturbed by our slow passing. Hands were closed up in two watches for passage through the minefields. The blackout, as always, was complete and no cigarettes were lit on the upper deck. There was the occasional quiet report to the bridge by changing lookouts and by guns testing communications with their control centre, the Transmitting Station, or TS as it was called, beside the bridge. Otherwise all was silence, save only the constant low roar of the ship's ventilation systems, while the hours moved inexorably through middle watch towards morning watch destiny, 0315, 0330, 0345...
"Firing, bearing Green four five, Sir!" Streams of tracer were lacing the blackness away on the starboard bow, and the first sounds of gunfire reached our ears many seconds later. It was about three-quarters of an hour before first light and it sparked activity aboard Brocklesby. It seemed things were happening earlier than expected. It was in fact a whole hour earlier because the first landings were not due until ten minutes to five, an hour before sunrise. A Bosn's Mate hurried through the ship calling "Hands to Action Stations". His voice was barely raised and he used no pipe, but the response was rapid for few were asleep.
On arrival at my allotted post with the Ammunition Party in the after mess-deck, immediately below the twin 4-inch gun mounted on the quarterdeck, the circular hatch plate giving direct access to the 4-inch magazine below the mess-deck was already removed and three men were down there. They were preparing to take fixed combinations of cartridge and shell projectile, euphemistically referred to as 'projjys', out of their stowages and pass them up by hand to the nearest of us standing by the edge of the hatch. Two more men were fitting chutes leading to small holes in the deckhead, up through which we were to push our burdens to loading numbers on the upper deck, who would grab and feed them into the waiting open breeches of the twin 4-inch. I had handled similarly weighted dummies during training six weeks ago and had vaguely hoped I might not have to do it again with real ones. But unfounded optimism like that is what makes war tolerable.
"Portchmouth, that's a projjy you're holding, not your private part! Do you want to kill us all?" The Petty Officer in charge of the Ammunition Party has decided to extend my education. "Grasp it firmly with both hands my son when you take it from below, walk round here clear of the next man coming in, place it firmly in the chute, put your delicate fist on the base of the cartridge case and push hard up through the deckhead. Don't be afraid you won't find the hole. We have the chute there for the guidance of virgin WC Candidates!" Derisive laughter rewards him at my further expense.
Of all the cruel ways for a young man to first be sent to sea, going to war as an Ordinary Seaman (Hostilities Only) potential Volunteer Reserve officer with the Royal Navy must be one of the worst. Completely green and innocent, from a relatively privileged education and a sheltered background, betrayed by different speech and manners, yet thrown in to live and fight cheek by jowl with hardened men from life's toughest schools, and furthermore expected to show leadership qualities, while all the time being known as an officer candidate so as to preclude any possibility of being mistaken for a real seaman! The insensitivity of 'Their Lordships' of the Admiralty, had excelled itself even further with their unfortunate choice of designation for their selected victims, "CW". Did the words the initials stood for, (Commission Warrant I believe), really have to be chosen when the initial letters so obviously lent themselves to gleeful transposition by Jolly Jack, from which it was but one small and naturally vulgar step to arrive at "Outhouse Candidate", – or, more usually, its coarser synonym? Or were 'Their Lordships' more clever than obtuse? "One more handicap will sort the wheat from the chaff the sooner. Good character-building stuff, what?"
Hmmm! Be that as it may, the Petty Officer in charge, like everyone else on board, would lose no opportunity to enjoy himself and entertain his audience at the expense of the likes of me, especially an eighteen year old still wet behind the ears. The other two commission hopefuls on board had been there longer and were becoming less easy meat. Well, my extra training would now have to wait because ready-use ammunition lockers on the upper deck were full and the two breeches were loaded.
When the gun burst into life some time later the deckhead blurred and simultaneous hammer blows to both sides of the head rendered the ears useless. The gun crashed again and again. All thought now vanished in repeated piercing of blows to the head and we moved mindless like robots.
Eventually the detonations ceased. The Petty Officer was answering the sound-powered phone in the corner. "You two men go up and help recover survivors port side midships." I followed my messmate up the ladder. It was light now. As we emerged on to the upper deck at the forward end of the after canopy, the 4-inch guns spoke again. They were firing point-blank into burning remains of a German armed trawler, while some two dozen or more severely shaken and pale survivors were already being pulled aboard over our guardrails amidships. As we hurried to assist I wondered why we were wasting further ammunition on the blazing wreck, but our merciless shells continued to blast into her and I silently prayed there was no one left alive on board. Then, as our wretched prisoners were led below under armed guard, we ceased fire and departed at speed, leaving the sinking hulk.
Shortly afterwards I was again sent to assist in recovery of survivors, this time a number of blue-skinned, semi-clad Commandos in devastated condition. When one was able to speak he told of being machine-gunned in the water with his comrades when their landing craft was sunk. He had seen a man actually cut in half by machine gun fire from the German ship that had rammed them. That later proved to have been part of the pre-dawn exchange of fire we had seen, which was in fact a chance encounter with a German coastal convoy. The vessel we had just finished off, had been one of the escorts for that convoy, and it's fate had initially been sealed by one of our ML's escorting the landing craft. So perhaps my sympathy for our German prisoners had been misplaced and they had cause to be grateful they were under armed guard when the commando survivors found them down below!
Otherwise, for the next six hours Brocklesby carried out her appointed tasks, while we below decks, without benefit of any uncovered scuttle to look through, could only guess at what the targets might be. Every time the guns exploded into action during that six hours I tried to concentrate on an imagined surface or land target, with which the ship would be on more equal terms, instead of the dreaded recurring image of a dive bomber overhead.
'Is the gun at maximum elevation or lower? Don't think. Just grab that projjy and shove it up the chute as fast as you can. – Another projjy –. Wonder if there's a split second before oblivion when you have time to realise what's happened if the magazine blows up underneath you. -Another projjy –. They say Hood's magazine was blown up by a shell from the Bismarck, and she was much better protected. – Another projjy –. Would a bomb or a shell penetrate to the magazine before exploding or would it go off here in the messdeck? – Another projjy –. Do those poor buggers down there feel better or worse off with all that cordite around them? – Another projjy –. Stop thinking! Just keep the mind blank and get on with it.' – Another projjy –.
Then, as noon approaches, there is a lull. Our guns have stopped. 'Feels as though we're turning, or maybe going astern.' The ship is shuddering. 'Must be turning or going astern fast.' The mess-deck is filling with smoke. 'Are we on fire? Can hardly see now. Breathe through the nose.'
"Shut those bloody louvres!. Open the hatch up top of the ladder!" The PO is taking charge again. "Must be going through a smoke screen and no bastard's remembered to shut the fuckin' fans off!"
We have to steady ourselves as it feels as though brakes are going on. 'Feels as though she's struggling. Struggling very hard now.' The shuddering struggle is joined by a rattling, a very long, loud rattling against the hull. Then it all stops. The PO's face is a white mask through the smoke as he says "We're a-ground!" The moment of silence ends with noise such as there has never been, erupting to sustained crescendo saturating all thought. 'Every gun in the ship must be firing, twin 4-inch forward as well as ours, pompom overhead, and oerlikons as well. Must be enemy fire too I think.' Then even imagination is obliterated. Smoke is clearing but the din blurs everything. We are pushing the rounds up very fast indeed now. 'Must keep up with the man in front. Don't want a shove from behind.' Sheer discipline instilled on the parade ground only weeks before for me, but months or even years before for some, now guarantees our actions regardless. PO has produced a wicker-covered rum jar from somewhere and is pouring it into a row of mess mugs on the table. We have been moving faster than the 4-inch can fire and we're backed up for a moment. PO hands me a tot of rum, the first I have ever been given!
"That's not for you. You're under age. Take it up to the TS."
'With such adherence to the book as that under the circumstances could it be that this is not the navy's equivalent to the army's traditional tot in the trenches before going over the top, but merely that the PO has just remembered it's past time for 'Up Spirits'? Or is it just that the under 20's in Nelson's navy had to have their ruined limbs sawn off without it? I don't know. Anyhow, now at least I'll have a chance to see what's going on, thank God!'
As I emerge from the hatch at the top of the ladder and look aft through the open doorway to the quarterdeck, there is a blazing tank, – just beyond our stern! 4-inch is firing fast to port. I can see no water and the tank is only feet away. Incredibly through that hail of death where nothing else moves, a soldier is walking away from the tank, and from us. He wears no helmet, battle dress open and carrying no weapon; he walks seemingly oblivious, like a man disgusted with a tool that has failed him. He can have but one more step to live as I quickly turn away forwards to carry out my task, grateful not to see him die.
I pass through the forward doorway onto open deck, which I must cross, with my precious cup of courage-for-adults-only. A prostrate figure is sheltering from the spray of machine gun bullets coming across the port side and ripping through everything on the deck between our position and my destination beside the bridge. He looks up.
"Watchya got there?"
"Whereya takin' it?"
"Show it to me." He takes and drains it in one gulp."Now get down 'ere you fuckin' idiot, you'll get killed!"
My mission now being pointless, and coming to a rapid conclusion that his assessment is correct in all respects, I accept his hospitality. It had not yet occurred to me that the suicidal assignment given to me by the PO might have been fully calculated. But it was apparent that he did not consider my services down below as indispensable. They're firing everything they have at us now, shells, mortars, heavy machine guns, light machine guns, and most of it seems to be coming from the port quarter.
Even as I sink to the deck beside my new-found friend, a cultured voice cuts through a brief break in the bedlam. I look over my shoulder to see the captain leaning over the after end of the starboard side of the bridge in white shirt sleeves with gold cuff links glinting in the sun.
"Prepare to abandon ship!" The tone is disdainful Dartmouth. (Home of the Royal Naval College and cradle of sang froid.)
I wonder what should be done at that order. A figure jumps out starboard of the funnel where he has been sheltering and moves towards the boat's davits abreast of his position. I recognize one of my two fellow CW's. A bright flash obliterates my view of him. When the smoke thins there is nothing there but the steel davits with some pieces of boat dangling from them. The all-surrounding noise level is so high the flash did not even seem to have had its own explosion. – 'The captain must have turned forwards a second earlier–or has he gone too?' I rise now looking for what else can be "prepared". Over the starboard side what looks like a large raw roast of beef is floating just beneath the surface. 'But its skin is too white, isn't it? And that looks like legs hanging below it. – Must have been one of those poor devils who got it when they ran into those German ships on the way in this morning.'
[My failure to realise that I was looking at half of my shipmate who had been blown away only seconds before, but to attribute the horror to another time and place entirely, was an example of the automatic stupefaction that seems to occur at moments of extreme experience. The brain has ceased to function because a circuit breaker has cut off reality, in order to shield the mind from destruction. I had received benefit of that blessed phenomenon nearly two years before, one November night in London, when war and the nightly blitz suddenly ceased to be of purely objective interest, with exciting interludes not devoid of enjoyment for a sixteen year old, and became, in just the split second that it took for a five hundred pound German bomb to destroy my family and home around me, a cataclysmic personal tragedy. Mercifully it was then months before my mind finally came to accept that it was not just an unspeakable dream to be banished by future sleep.]
The 'Jimmy' is moving fast down the starboard side towards us. "Fire in Ammunition Locker aft. Get hoses out!" He dashes on through the After Canopy to take charge, where the 4-inch is declaiming desperate defiance as loading numbers break all records, regardless of the blaze. Pompom and oerlikons spew steady staccatos, totally numbing the senses, as we look for hoses and extinguishers, and awareness returns.
'There–can–be–no–escape–from–this. Pray then – Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name – Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that – as we forgive? Surely God prefers honesty to that!' The deck rivets at my feet are blurring. 'We must vaporize like the Hood any second now – Dear God save us all! ––––– Are we actually forcing the Germans' heads down? No, we can't even see where they are. Our guns are trying to smother every possibility. Impossible. How high up the cliffs? Which caves? Which buildings? What parts of the seafront? It's all one-sided. The Jerries must hardly believe their eyes having this sitting duck handed to them out of the smoke while they shoot from their blinds.'
Suddenly the ship starts struggling again, struggling, shaking hard and kicks shingle flying, as more poor bloody wrecks of soldiers are somehow dragged aboard.
"Fire's out. Get that hose out of the way!" I pull it back into the After Canopy. 'Beach doesn't look quite so close now. We're moving. Yes, moving!' We have a heavy list now. But once again we transit the smoke, and this time it becomes our blessed ally, blinding the enemy from their prize.
Some half-clothed, shivering and dazed remains of valiant Canadian soldiers and Royal Marines stare with unseeing eyes and stagger unspeaking as we help them forward for shelter and blankets. They have been forced to try to take refuge in and under the water in that maelstrom of hell before we got to them. It was the main beach in front of Dieppe. The Canadians had gone in first and been smothered by fire from both sides, from in front and from the cliffs, so that only a few had got beyond the beach. Most of those who lived to clear the ramps of their landing craft were then pinned down on the shingle and systematically slaughtered. Any wounded man unable to reach cover was still alive only if he appeared dead. Any that moved became targets for fire from all sides until they moved no longer. As on other beaches, the signallers with their back-pack radios were given priority attention by the Germans, with the result that the Army and Naval Force Commanders in the HQ ship, HMS Calpe, their views of the beach obscured by smoke and receiving only sketchy radio reports, were unaware of the extent of disaster and of the fact that even a successful approach to the beach was now all but impossible.
So the Royal Marines, being held in reserve, had been sent in to help. But as their seven landing craft emerged from the smoke their run in became what a witnessing officer later described as "The maritime version of The Charge of The Light Brigade". The three craft that survived the approach were destroyed on beaching.
We could never have got those shattered but determined remnants of soldiers in over our high bow of course, so the Old Man had taken a calculated risk and gone in stern-first. No doubt we were going astern fast through the smoke and when we broke clear it was too late to avoid going well up onto the beach. Fortune had subsequently favoured the bold against all odds.
The captain is on the main deck conferring with 'Number One'. In the two minutes or so that we were stranded we have taken six direct hits inboard by 75mm shells, in addition to mortar damage and end-to-end repeated raking with machine gun fire. One of the first shells had put both engines out of action so that the captain had concluded it was time to prepare for the worst. Engine room personnel had then performed a miracle and managed to get enough power out of one engine for the ship to literally screw itself off the beach when in extremis. We still have only one engine.
The captain is speaking. "I'm going to ask HQ if they want me to go back in for another go, or to try to make for Portsmouth with what we have".
'So that's how DSO's are won!' I wonder whether any of the others who overheard him have any thoughts different from mine at this moment. 'We shall not survive again.' Apart from the briefest of looks I catch on their faces, no one is revealing his thoughts.
I turn aft to go back to my action station. The twin 4-inch is at maximum elevation. Barrels spout pink flame through yellow smoke. Spent cartridge cases ring hopeful death knell for their target as they eject to the deck. I follow the line of barrels skywards. The black silhouette of a Dornier tries to evade by banking steeply against the bright blue. Sun flashes on its perspex nose as it does so, and three black dots detach themselves from it. My eyes follow the black dots. 'Crew bailing out?. Down, down. No – That's bombs!. but they won't hit us', – down, down, down, – a destroyer's foc'sle appears beneath them and I feel a ripple of crumps as they hit. The stricken destroyer starts heeling over immediately to starboard and my last view of her as I go below again is of arms outstretched through for'd port side scuttles. 'Poor bastards!' That was HMS Berkeley.
Soon afterwards the skipper receives his answer. HQ does not wish to risk losing another destroyer, as nothing on the beach moves any longer, and we are ordered to make for Portsmouth with the troops we have rescued. My coward's heart is ashamed of its relief.
We limp slowly back across the Channel, exhausting our ammunition against the pursuing Luftwaffe until dark, and with at least one Royal Marine survivor manning one of the oerlikons in place of a wounded or dead ship's gunner. No one seems to know how many soldiers we've saved. 'Hope it's more than our own casualties.' There is another Junkers 87 chalked on the funnel. 'Wonder when that happened?' I take a look in the after galley on the way by and see we shall be out of luck for any hot food. There is an unexploded German 75mm shell wedged firmly into the bottom of the oven. 'That would be a "cook-off" alright! Wonder if it was there when I was looking for that extinguisher? Could have come in while I was in there for all the extra noise it would have made then.'
It is after midnight when we reach Pompey, where the ship is destined for dry docking and major repairs with most of the crew drafted straight away to barracks ashore, thence to be sent to other ships. Only a few selected caretakers would not be leaving, including of course Stripey, who has seen a lengthy period of refit ahead and has contrived to remain for the "cushy number". Regrettably, even if I had had the wit to think of it at the time, I would not have dared to tell him there was a 75mm token of my esteem in the bottom of the oven in the After Galley, and if he wanted a duff, to "Cook the bastard!" That has to be added to the list of 'Things I wish I'd said.' Instead, with kit bag in one hand, hammock over one shoulder and gas mask with tin hat over the other, I make my way thankfully, through blacked-out dockyard and deserted streets to HMS Victory barracks.
In the last 46 hours I've had but a 3-hour catnap in my hammock, and that was 26 hours ago. The Luftwaffe will have to blast me out of it tonight!
[ Back ] Footnote 1: Roy Sydney Portchmouth was born in Wimbledon, England in 1924 and started his naval career in a Youth Training Scheme in 1941 at the age of seventeen, later selected for pilot training as a Volonteer Reservist. In 1943-1944 he trained for the Fleet Air Arm in Ontario and the U.K., which was followed by operational flying as pilot in 822 Squadron in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and the East, leaving the Royal Navy in June 1946. On 22 June 1948, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy (Reserve) as Lt(P), thence RCN as SSA Lt(P) seniority same date, accepting a permanent commission 22 March 1949. He served mostly in H.M.C. ships based at Halifax and St. John’s (Magnificent, Stadacona, Prestonian, Lanark, Ungava (XO), Thunder (XO) and Cabot (Staff Officer Administration)) as LT(p), promoted LCdr(P) 22 March 1957, retiring in 1966. Moving to England, he joined the Royal National Life Boat Institution from 1970 to 1985, then returned to Canada where he joined the Canadian Coast Guard as Inspector of small vessels in Nova Scotia, then as an Inspector at the Canadian Coast Guard College in Sydney, finally retiring in 1991. He passed away 18 February 2008.