My WW2 ‘dit’ as told by
RNWA ‘Life Member’ Lt. Cdr. RN (Rtd) FRED DAVENPORT
For the 125th Anniversary of the RNWA in 2012, Fred was approached by The Secretary Les Heyhoe to provide some memories of his time in ‘The Andrew’ but particularly his time in service during WW2 so here is just a fragment of Fred’s story:-
“It was with some trepidation that I undertook the relating of the experiences of an ‘Old and Bold’ Writer during the Second World War. After some seventy plus years the memories are dim and suspect and it can be difficult to stick to the facts without embellishment or exaggeration. However here goes, I will do my best; we weren’t allowed to keep diaries and our letters were heavily censored.
As a cockney kid living in Essex , approaching the age of 18 at the outbreak of war, to avoid waiting to be called up I took the open competitive examination for Writer in the Royal Navy and having passed joined the RN at Chatham Barracks as a Probationary Writer in January 1941. After completion of basic seaman and professional training, during which our instructors, a Leading Seaman and a Chief Writer were, to us, almost God-like, I was drafted to my Port Division Portsmouth. Shortly afterwards I was drafted to HMS EAGLE, an elderly aircraft carrier and took passage to Dunnottar Castle, a cruise liner converted into an armed merchant cruiser. She was manned by retired Merchant navy personnel enlisted as T124X ratings with RN titles. I was detailed to work in the Ship’s Office whilst on passage and presumably because I was regular RN the Chief Petty Office (CPO – T124X) assumed I was well up on all the regulations and procedures – me a newly passed out ‘Scribe’ on a 7 and 5 engagement! I joined HMS EAGLE early a.m. at Freetown, Sierra Leone, in July in the midst of a tropical storm. After the spacious accommodation of the ‘Dunnottar Castle’ it seemed like a rabbit warren. The next few months were spent patrolling the South Atlantic searching for German armed raiders and pocket battleships – same class as the Bismarck. Conditions on board were pretty grim, evaporators constantly breaking down and fresh water rationed. Replenishment of supplies was infrequent, hence shortage of fresh food – staple diet was mostly tinned food i.e. herrings in tomato sauce and hard tack biscuits full of weevils, jokingly referred to as fresh meat. In addition to normal ledger duties, I was fair hand to the Chief Writers rough hand (a real pusser type – hard task master with no sense of humour).
I kept Cypher Watch keeping duties, deciphering incoming signals supervised by either a Scoolie (Instructor Officer) or Junior Paymaster. I recall that on joining HMS EAGLE, I was inundated with requests for news by shipmates who joined the ship in the Far East before the start of hostilities, of the effect and conditions during air raids at home.
HMS EAGLE returned to the UK towards the end of 1941 for a refit in Liverpool Dockyard. I remained with the ship as part of the Care and Maintenance Party, with conditions on board a ship undergoing a refit especially during wartime it was not of the best of places to be. In addition to normal naval duties, air raids meant increased duties i.e. fire watching and backing up civilian Air Raid Wardens’ teams.
After the refit and embarking the recommissioning crew “EAGLE” sailed for the Mediterranean in early 1942. Based at Gibraltar and employed on convoy duties and ferrying aircraft to a besieged Malta. The convoys were under constant attack from the air and sea, with sinkings and damage to a large number of ships. During these actions I was a member of the Damage Control Party, and picked up my Leading Rate being transferred to the Captain’s Office.
It was during Operation Pedestal one of the most heavily protected convoys of the war, 14 merchant ships carrying vital supplies, escorted by some 50 or so warships, that “EAGLE “ was sunk. It was a last ditch effort to relieve a desperately battered Malta. The EAGLE was struck by 4 torpedoes on the port side from submarine U73 at 1315 on 11 August, and sank like a stone within 10 minutes. Shortly before that we had reduced from Action Stations to defence watches and I took the opportunity to do my dhobying (navy slang for washing) and have a shower, knowing we were more than likely to be continually closed up at Action Stations later on. I was in the Junior Rates bathroom some decks below the waterline when we were hit – it has annoyed me ever since as I had finished my dhobying! In complete darkness, all power had gone, I groped my way to the nearest hatchway, with the deck healed well over and the hatches perilously angled. I can recall the absence of panic and getting to the hatch found myself helped through by an unknown shipmate so naturally you did the same for someone following you. Soon came to the upper waist deck, clambered down to the torpedo bulge and leapt into the water as the order to “abandon ship” was given. After some hours in the water hanging onto a rolled up net, whilst depth charges were being dropped by the escorts, I was picked up the fleet tug Jaunty and later transferred to the old destroyer HMS MALCOLM. During the night HMS WOLVERINE rammed a submarine and was badly damaged. HMS MALCOLM was then detached to escort HMS WOLVERINE back to Gibraltar. HMS FURIOUS had reached the point where the Spitfires could fly to Malta and was ordered back to Gibraltar having completed her part in the operation.
Details of the sinking of HMS EAGLE, in which 162 crew were lost and 927 were saved, had been leaked by the Daily Express, normally no news of sinkings were released until next of kin had been notified. So our kith and kin did not know our fate until many days later. Once we were re-kitted in Gibraltar, we had all lost our kit and personal gear, we returned to the UK on board HMS NELSON and after 7 days survivors leave I joined RNB Portsmouth to assist in reconstructing EAGLE’s accounts. The Pay Office in HMS EAGLE was in the area where the first torpedo hit. Therefore customary drill of securing the ledgers in a watertight container for throwing overboard was not possible.
Subsequently I joined the staff of Flag Officer Naval Air Stations as a section leader during the preparations for D Day. After picking up my Petty Officer’s rate I was drafted to HMS SIRIUS a cruiser in the 15th Cruiser Squadron during the Normandy campaign and afterwards proceeding to the Mediterranean for the South of France landings.
Thereafter the ship was involved in operations, post-war clear up in Italy, Greek Civil War during which there were shore landings and patrols around the Greek Islands to protect the civil population. During this chaotic period with added security measures we had additional duties on top of pussering. Also at this time the Greek economy collapsed and the exchange rate for the Drachma was in the region of 6 million to the pound. Hence money changing facilities on board were not used. Sterling, clothing, soap and tobacco were what the locals required in exchange for run ashore needs i.e. booze etc. Nevertheless we still promulgated money changing times on board and the Paymaster Commander and I simply sat there for the proscribed period so that anyone apprehended ashore for black market dealings could not say there were no facilities on board to change money. Later on HMS SIRIUS was tasked with patrolling off Palestine stopping and searching unauthorised entries which did not please the Israelis – they were then the terrorists. Shore patrols were frequently targeted, and always in danger. HMS SIRIUS was also used as Guard Ship in Trieste to keep the warring factions of Italy and Yugoslavia apart, each wanted control of the port. Constant changes of venue caused delays in mail reaching the ship and many times, dealing with weeks and months of back mail, meant burning the midnight oil by the Pay and Captain’s Office scribes.
The ship was in Alexandria on VE Day, the locals boarded up all the shops etc, they assumed that we would be so hyped up and go round smashing the place up. The ship eventually returned to UK in June 1946 a year after the European War ended to the relief and joy of our loved ones.