8 AUGUST 1942
Dawn brought the welcome news by signal that HM Ship’s Broke and Castleton and the Polish destroyer Blyskawica (soon to be christened “Blister Me Whiskers”) had been sailed from Londonderry in support. I never did find out why they turned up when they did and I do not remember whether Castleton ever did, not that any of that matters so far as the tale is concerned. I suppose we were about half-way across. That day was the most perfect summer day I ever remember in the Atlantic, with a warm breeze and a beautiful, blue sea sparkling in the sunlight. That glorious morning, which betokened a day of perfect bliss at sea, turned into disaster and, incidentally, was the day in which I did the most stupid thing I have ever done in my life – but that came later.
Despite radar, we still went in for masthead look-outs and at 1115, the look-out hailed torpedoes approaching the convoy from the port bow. Quick as lightning, the Signal Bosun, whose efforts ever since we set out had been prodigious, hoisted an emergency flag signal for an alteration of course 45 degrees to port and sounded two warning blasts on the siren. Like one ship, the convoy turned to comb the approaching torpedoes, which rattled and growled in our A/S loudspeaker as they came and passed on their way without hitting anything. No contact with the firer was made and the convoy’s course was altered 90 degrees to starboard, out of the frying pan into the fire!
Shortly after the convoy had settled down on its new course, Primrose and Chilliwack sighted a U-Boat apiece ahead of the convoy at 6 miles. Both were promptly engaged by gunfire and both, not being much put out by the accuracy, but disliking the quantity, dived. No attempt was made to hunt them because we knew we were surrounded; there was nothing to do but to charge through and hope for the best. The escorts closed in, zig-zagging between 2,000 and 4,000 yards from their allotted positions. As usual, the cook put the galley fire out and turned his attentions to his personal weapons – one for either door.
For a short hour all was peace. Then, at 1327, a submarine broke surface to periscope depth at 1,200 yards directly ahead of Primrose. That must have been when he lost his trim immediately after firing a salvo of torpedoes. We counter-attacked immediately with perfect A/S contact. When the periscope was about 15 yards away, fine on the starboard bow, as the A/S recorder trace showed fire and the navigator’s voice came up the voice-pipe, “Over by plot”, the firing buzzers were pressed. They failed to ring! The traps jammed! A yell from the bridge got the throwers off – late! The submarine dived deep, untouched!
HMS PRIMROSE’S CREST
The subsequent enquiry absolved the ship. The buzzer cables had burnt out and an unauthorised modification to the traps made by some clever warrior in Newfoundland who had never been to sea, on the grounds that the depth charges rattled about too much in rough weather, was all to blame. We were also to blame. We should have known; we should have tested the buzzers more often. That submarine was a “sitter” and it should have been blown sky high. It was a bitter blow, the more so since the Germans who did all the damage escaped without the retribution we were in the most perfect position to mete out; as it was, there must have been more than one submarine to have inflicted the damage that was done.
The next moment all was a shambles – a picture snapped by the eye like a still photograph and thus it remains in the mind for ever. When we looked, we should have cried, but we had forgotten how. As the torpedoes struck home, our depth charges went off ahead of the port column adding to the confusion and chaos, since those in the lead had no idea what had caused the explosion.
The Commodore’s ship, a vessel on its maiden voyage, was steaming itself under, its masts and funnel still going through the water, leaving a wash; as it went down some heroic soul on the bridge was still signalling with an Aldis lamp which was suddenly extinguished. There were no survivors. Close by, three more ships were sinking and two more were drifting down the line out of control. Suddenly, somewhere in that convoy, one of the sinking ships carrying ammunition blew up! Few escaped unscathed as the thunderous, crashing roar deafened and disorientated all in the vicinity; the smoke obscured the daylight and the air was full of flying debris; we were stunned by the blast. Through it all, plunged the surviving ships, belching smoke from their funnels, weaving and swerving to avoid sinking ships, wreckage and drowning seamen. Dante might have painted that inferno had he lived then.
SIGNALMAN CARRYING OUT HIS DUTIES
In the mêlée, Primrose went down the port side of the convoy, not without the danger of collision, hoping to make contact with the missed U-Boat, leaving the other escorts and the convoy to thrash their way out of it, every ship going much faster than ever the designers dreamed. Who picked up lots of the survivors, I do not know – certainly some merchant ships stopped to do so as did some of the escorts;
I seem to recollect we had 98 who lived, comprised of 12 different nationalities. At the start, we simply did not know where to begin, because there was so much wreckage, oil, and so many surviving seamen in the water waving their arms. Amid it all, about six small landing craft bobbed up and down, empty; they must have been the upper deck cargo from one of the sunken ships. I remember my CO decided, since we were there, we should get on with it and first we passed four men standing on a raft, yelling for help. My CO said; since they seemed so full of life, they could wait while we attended to those in the water. He ordered me not to send any boats away, so that meant scrambling nets and heaving lines. On these occasions, it was never necessary to tell the ship’s company what to do, but none liked the order “no boats”. We came to a stop in a group of survivors, with dead or unconscious men floating among them.
At this time, our youngest signalman took it upon himself to go and darn a hole in the Ensign before the hole could result in it being torn to tatters, probably because he had nothing else to do at the time, but also because we never changed our Ensign at sea if it could be avoided; it was reckoned to be bad “joss” to do so. I was down aft watching oil-covered men being helped up the scrambling nets; some of our sailors were in the water with one hand on a net and the other stretched out to grab whoever managed to struggle close enough. Lying on his back, supported by his life-jacket, about 15 yards from the ship, was an injured man, quietly moaning. By him were others, dead or unconscious. You cannot rescue that kind with scrambling nets or heaving lines. I remember that and wondering what to do. Because I did not have the courage to leave him there, I stripped off, went in over the side in my birthday suit, and as I went, I was aware of ten or a dozen sailors following the idiotic example I had set.
By the time I reached the injured man, I realised the sea was very cold and it felt so very deep; the ship looked a long way off – and I got cramp in the legs. A well flung heaving line saved my bacon and the bloke I was hanging on to, although he died later. Also, all the crew in the water returned safely to the ship with more of the injured. The next thing I remember is standing shivering, once more in what passed for my uniform, in the shambles aft, quite incapable of making any further contribution. The Buffer gave me a strange look and took over my job.
Slowly, the ship got under way and, as it did, I was piped to the bridge. There, my CO said to me, “I see you have been bathing. Never leave the ship again without my permission! Now, go and get ready to receive those two boats pulling towards us over on the port bow – and sink the boats when you have got the men out; I’m going to take the ship over for those four still yelling for help on the raft.” He never mentioned the subject again.
Just to finish the incident, very much later that night, the Coxswain asked to see me in my cabin. When he came in he said, “Some of the crew think you are a bloody hero. I think you are the biggest bloody fool I have ever met. You left the Captain without a First Lieutenant and ten of his seamen. You know he might have had to steam away and leave you all, and you kept us all hanging about, stopped like a sitting duck, until we had got you all back. Sir!” He put on his cap and left. When I next saw the Buffer he simply said, “I hear you have had a word with the Coxswain, Sir. You won’t let us down again, will you!” No question, just a statement. That was how the regular senior rate taught junior officers their jobs. Neither ever mentioned it again, nor did their loyalty to me ever lessen or waiver. I made damn sure I never ever let them down again. I might add, one or two other senior rates made a point of letting me know they also agreed with the Coxswain. We all had to learn that sometimes men had to be left to die.
The last man to be hauled up over the side was a huge 19-stone man, covered in oil, and it took four hands to get him inboard, by which time two of his ribs had been broken. I felt somewhat ashamed when he told me this was his third go at getting back to the UK from America, but now he was in an HM ship he knew he would make it this time!
The two boatloads represented the entire crew, less one man, of a Greek ship, which they only abandoned when they were certain she was done for without a tug to tow her to harbour. Never have I seen such a villainous lot, each armed with a knife, butcher’s cleaver or axe, and the master and mates with a pistol apiece. After a certain amount of gesticulation, the whole lot were disarmed. The First Mate’s revolver had one round fired – which might have accounted for the missing man and the excellent discipline he exercised. They turned out to be a splendid bunch; it was really quite extraordinary how they fitted themselves into the ship’s routine and lent a hand, taking over the galley completely where, for the first time since the ship was commissioned (whilst the flour lasted), very edible white bread, was made. Our own cooks never managed to produce anything better than substitutes for bricks, both being electricians in civilian life! The last we saw of that desolate place was the Greek ship stationary and abandoned, floating in company with the screaming and feasting seagulls.
By 1600 all escorts had re-joined the convoy, which was once again steaming along in good order. Life on board was cramped, and in a couple of days we were down to hard tack, ie teeth-breaking ship’s biscuits. The other escorts were no better off.
The Broke joined in the “first dog”, having spent the afternoon giving a submarine a pasting which had no doubt been caught napping looking in our direction. Although it was grand to have a destroyer back in the escort, she arrived with that usual superior look destroyers always put on when in company with corvettes, this one being particularly superior having a Commander in command. She raced over to the starboard bow and dropped a depth charge to impress everyone, and then sidled over to Primrose for a chat and to take over command; as she did so, a raucous voice from aft shouted, “Yer too late, mate – we dropped one in that corner last week!” A very pained looking Commander surveyed our scruffy, rusty-looking vessel with its untidy crew of ruffians (of course, made more impressive by the Greeks) and loftily announced that all would now be well. Admiralty spoilt that somewhat by signalling 20 or more U-Boats estimated to be in our area!
During the “dogs”, four survivors had died. Just an hour before that they had been talking, warm and dry, under blankets in bunks. They just simply died from too much war. I remember watching three ratings, all from the Hebrides, getting them ready for burial aft on the deck just forward of the depth charge rails. The three men were quiet and dignified, and in that crowded ship, garbed and ready for instant action, it was a place of great peace. It is amazing how the Almighty takes a hand at times in the affairs of man. The bodies were laid out in a row, clean and naked; each corpse had cotton-wool bandaged in place over the eyes; the arms were folded over the chest and tied in place with more bandage; solid shot (practice shells) were put between the thighs and legs and fixed in place with more bandage; then, carefully and neatly, each body was sown up into a hammock, placed on a plank and covered with a White Ensign. I gave no orders, for none were needed. I knew my job would be writing the letters. As I looked, without sentiment or sorrow, at a task that had to be done, I remember thinking, “This is me. What have I become?”
At 1800, the ship was stopped. None minded the risk being taken. I read the burial service, then the bodies were slid over the side from under the Ensigns as the inboard end of the planks were lifted and I watched them plummeting straight down into the clear, clean depths of the Atlantic until they were out of sight. For one very brief moment, there was peace. Then the “carry on” was piped, the ship gathered way, and we went back to war without a backward look for four men who might never have existed.
At 1944, Dianthus sighted a U-Boat on the surface and was despatched to attend to it. Almost immediately, Primrose sighted two more on the port bow of the convoy and was also detailed to deal with them. They had the sauce to make off on the surface, hotly pursued by 4-inch shells, but as it would soon be dark, we did not fall for that one and returned to our station. Since the enemy persisted in making his attacks from the port bow of the convoy, we assumed he wished to keep it, and us, between him and the sun. You will recollect that our mean course was easterly.
RALPH SHEFFIELD, FIRST LIEUTENANT, HMS PRIMROSE
Dianthus reported at 2146 she had sighted two more submarines and a little help would not be amiss. Chilliwack, having the most depth charges left, was sent to her aid. Then a slight lull ensued and most of the “Primroses” fell asleep where they were, since we had been stood down at action stations, whilst I had a talk with the Captain of the Greek ship (who had decided to make his quarters in the Wardroom bath) about the possibility of going back for his ship, to give it a tow. Then the Coxswain and I toured the ship to see who was where; practically every bunk, bed and hammock was occupied by the survivors, all of whom seemed most impressed by the fact that none of us seemed to need any sleep: and many of whom, were totally unaware they owed their lives to the unremitting toil and determination of the Buffer, using oxygen bottles properly belonging to the fire-fighting breathing apparatus, and his powerful arms, to make them live.
HMS DIANTHUS DEPTH CHARGES
Strangely, you may think, the whole ship’s company was very cheerful, and the ship had never been happier. Of course, everyone knew his job and relatively few orders had to be given, because everything worked on the basis of quiet harmony, understanding and willing co-operation. I have not mentioned all the false alarms – even a seagull with his head in the water and his arse in the air could be mistaken for a periscope – but there were many of those, each one starting with the raucous ringing of the alarm bells, followed by a few brief moments of running feet clattering on ladders, the dull thuds of water-tight doors closing, the rattle of ammunition hoists being cleared away, the clang of a breech block, the noise of buzzers as positions reported close up –and then the silent tension of readiness, with here and there a smile, and everywhere calm, watchful eyes in tired, strained faces. It is all called “a high state of morale”; those who shared in it will never forget it and think with nostalgia of the days when all were of one company.
HMS PRIMROSE’S 4 INCH GUN
That state of morale, which rapidly made me forget the physical and mental effects of my stupidity (not that I had much time to dwell upon either), had a very marked effect upon the survivors who paid us many compliments, because for the first time many of them saw what the Navy was doing in its endeavour to protect them, even if outwardly it did not appear to be all that successful. For me, it underlined how important it is that the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy should each know all about the affairs and problems of the other. I fear that is another lesson a new generation has to learn all over again, unless someone has the wit to plan it now. The day was not yet over. At 2301, Dianthus radioed she was attacking another submarine 1,000 yards away. Chilliwack joined to assist, but the U-Boat escaped, and contact was lost. Dianthus ordered Chilliwack to return to the convoy, while she remained to snoop around a little longer in case the German decided to come up for air. Eventually giving it up, the ship set course to re-join the convoy, only to come upon U-379 on the surface at 2358: she succeeded in ramming the U-Boat four times, finally despatching it with depth charges after a hot 15 minutes.
Corvettes were not good vessels for ramming, although we all liked the idea. Since Dianthus was in a sinking condition and already had over 200 survivors, including some Germans from U-210, she was only able to take aboard five of U-379’s survivors, generously giving the rest in the water all the ship’s Carley floats and some food. She then left them to get on with it and made off at two knots.
Only superhuman exertions saved the ship from foundering as the lower forrard messdeck, cable locker and forrard fuel tank were flooded. By carrying everything aft, including cable and anything else moveable, the ship’s company managed to get the bows clear of the water by daylight. What that night was like, only those present can know. There were nearly 300 men aboard, including some Greek survivors who offered to cut the German prisoners’ throats, which they insisted would lighten the ship when the bodies were thrown overboard afterwards. Dianthus’ Commanding Officer said the best moment of the day was when he introduced the Captain of U-379 to the senior officer of U-210.
HMS DIANTHUS DAMAGE FROM RAMMING U-BOAT
9 AUGUST 1942
At around 0350, Battleford started her own fight and, once again, the rest joined in with starshell, snowflake and the usual noise. Shortly afterwards, Broke reported D/F bearings of two U-Boats ahead and Admiralty added to the fun by telling us of a few more. The pack was chattering as it collected again. Dianthus re-joined after daylight to a rousing welcome from both convoy and escort, to be safely ensconced right in the middle of the convoy (not, mark you, that anywhere was particularly safe), and able to make 10 knots if required. Some rough weather might have saved some merchant ships, but it would have done Dianthus no good.
Later that morning, the immense destroyer Blyskawica joined, belting hotfoot through the convoy at over 30 knots, to investigate her own private D/F bearing. For the rest of the time she had a roving commission and made a lot of noise about it, but her speed and armament, plus her superb crew, must have turned the odds somewhat in our favour. No German wanted to find himself in the hands of the Poles. A surfaced U-Boat seeing that ship coming dived deep very quickly indeed, and a deep dived U-Boat was a harmless one.
A siesta in the afternoon was spoilt by Orillia and Nasturtium contacting a submarine at periscope depth, sneaking up on the starboard beam of the convoy, but both had to give up after half an hour of plastering because depth charges were getting short, as was our fuel. After that, the rest of the day passed peacefully, but by that time no one could settle down, so we ate wads, drank a brew or two, and dozed while we waited for it to begin again.
10 AUGUST 1942
We were at action stations again by 0030 on the strength of two radar echoes ahead, as usual, again to port. At 0034, torpedoes were heard coining our way. They passed close by down the starboard side and we waited for a bang astern. They hit nothing, but we found the firer and gave him a good belting with depth charges until the convoy was too close for safety. Next morning, Broke informed us she had also had a similar experience, but had not found anything to belt.
By now, all in Primrose had a distinct dislike for the port bow position, but we were shortly to exchange it for an even nastier one. Dawn found us ordered to sweep 20 miles astern of the convoy to deter shadowers detected by D/F in Broke. I personally felt that of all places in the Atlantic that was the last place to be, because it was there the pack would reform after its last night’s abortive effort. But just the same, off we went, and by 0400 were well on our way, feeling extremely lonely and very exposed. The Coxswain, as he often did, came up to keep me company on the bridge accompanied by his own special brew of very fortifying “kai” (cocoa to you).
HMS PRIMROSE’S BRIDGE
At around 0630, just after the Bosun’s Mate had brought me some tea, the masthead look-out reported a merchant ship on the horizon ahead. I peered through my glasses and saw what looked like the most enormous submarine ever built equipped with a gun appropriate to its size! No wonder the man up the “stick” thought he had seen a merchant ship! I pressed the alarm bells, when the CO arrived, took the shortest route to the gun platform by jumping off the front of the bridge and, with the aid of a couple of hands, got that gun going quicker than it had ever been roused out before. A round alongside the conning tower convinced the Germans that the decent thing to do was to dive, and when we arrived at the diving position it was treated to a couple of charges to discourage any ideas it might have had of coning up for a shoot-out.
Just as we were replenishing the upper deck stowage with ammunition, a yelp from the pom-pom gun’s crew aft reported an even bigger and better submarine. Round went the ship. Bang went the gun. Down went the U-Boat. Another yell from the masthead produced a third. We’d found the pack! Number three did not seem to have spotted us because he was obviously looking towards the way the convoy had gone and he was liberally plastered for his pains. The last shell landed smack on the place where his periscope was disappearing, and I have always hoped he had to find his way back to Germany (if ever he did) without it. Chilliwack had been ordered to our aid and when she turned up, we had a nice little hunt together, working the submarine over until 1023, when Broke came up on the had been sunk. There were a few comments about “all would now be well”!
On the way back, an abandoned merchant ship left over from Broke’s forenoon party was sighted ahead, so we altered course to investigate as some lurking U-Boat put a torpedo into it and sank it. Chilliwack gained a contact and dropped the last of her depth charges. We went in and found nothing. So, we both then made off to re-join the convoy and my CO exercised the privilege of rank by leaving me on the bridge while he nipped off for a nap. Just after he had got to “fifty fathoms down”, a thunderous explosion blew the ship up in the air by the stern! Everything stood on its head!
The survivors climbed into the boats and rafts ready to take to the sea again; my CO belted on to the bridge and blasted me for dropping depth charges without his permission (quite forgetting I did in fact have his permission to do so); steam and the Chief Stoker appeared from the boiler room to announce that every gauge glass was busted; the Chief Engineer (“Pluto” – so nicknamed because he always wore a hat with long ear flaps) arrived to say everything in his part of the world was groaning and squeaking; the steward arrived to report that every piece of glass in the officers’ quarters was shattered (the ship’s company had long since been living out of empty bean cans) –and in that he included such vital things as bottles of gin and other succulent foods. We unbunged our ears, found we were still afloat, and still steaming at our best speed. Over the ship spread one big grin. This is refit stuff, said that grin! I have no idea what caused the bang, but I suspect it was either a near miss from a torpedo going off in our wake or, more likely, the abandoned merchant ship we had seen sunk, blowing up underneath us as ammunition in her hold exploded. We were not really fussy at the time.
We re-joined the convoy at 1300. The fuel situation was now a critical factor in whether or not we could fend off another attack. We had a few depth charges left for a final fling and not much fling left in ourselves. We received the glad news that air cover was laid on for the next day and that HM Ships Skate, Saladin, Shikari and Sabre had been sailed from Londonderry in support, ships famous for the fact that, in rough weather, only their funnels were clear of the water. Around midday, air cover in the shape of a Catalina flying boat arrived and from then on was constant, although we did not see much of it. At about 1800, HMS Sennen also turned up out of the blue to take off some of our Greek shipmates to go back and look for their ship in case it was still afloat. They volunteered to a man, but a towing party of only eight could be transferred by whaler because of the heavy sea running; the remainder of the Greek crew raised hell because they could not go as well, except for the Captain who accepted the vicissitudes of life and remained in the bath. No one envied them their job and each of the eight had to jump for it. The seamanship of the whaler’s crew was superb and not an oar was broken. They were all brave men in that boat. Late that night, one further attack was driven off at 2300. It was not pressed home, but it was the end of our depth charges.
11 AUGUST 1942
After an uneasy night in a sloppy sea, which bounced us around, dawn broke cold, windy and grey, and it was wet on deck. Life below was uncomfortable because of the crowd of survivors, and it must have been far worse in the other ships which had many more. Gradually, it began to dawn on us that perhaps the worst was over, although none could really relax; we just hung around feeling drained, tired and apprehensive – waiting with nothing to do in such circumstances really lets the reaction set in, especially if you happen to be feeling a little sea-sick. I applied the usual First Lieutenant’s remedy and set everyone to work to tidy up the ship, which the Chief Stoker endeavoured to counter by emerging to say fresh water would have to be rationed as one of his evaporators (a piece of diabolical machinery which turned sea water into fresh water) was in need of a clean!
At 2000, the support force from Londonderry arrived in its usual cloud of spray and we settled down as the weather eased to wait for another attack. It did not come, because it was all over, although we did not know it.
12 AUGUST 1942
At 1000, five rusty, dirty, sea-worn corvettes escorting a sixth, with its grinning bows high out of the water, were despatched to proceed to harbour – and the fleshpots! There the story ends. The ship got its refit, my CO got a brand new frigate and I got accelerated promotion to Lieutenant; we all got drunk after we arrived in Londonderry except the Coxswain, who said he did not approve of it. It wasn’t that he did not drink, it was simply that he never got drunk, no matter how much he drank!