Richard spent four months at Greenwich Naval College and Chatham Gunnery School learning gunnery and various other skills. He recalls this toughened him up before being posted as Midshipman on 21st September to HMS Howe, a battleship which was part of the Atlantic Fleet moored in Scapa Flow.
“It was a long train journey which took the best part of 24 hours, including the boat trip to the Orkneys from Scrabster, a small fishing port on the very tip of NE Scotland. Due to the blackout rains were unlit, or dimly lit if blinds were available. Leaving London, I remember standing in a crowded, dark, cold corridor on the train next to a girl who was about my own age. We stood holding hands in the dark and I remember she got off at Royston in Hertfordshire. It was a sort of magical moment, and having being bought up in boys’ boarding schools it was probably my first female contact!
I have few recollections of what my duties were on ‘Howe’ or what we did. Having been engaged in various Atlantic operations, the ship was due to go into dock for a refit. I had to keep a Midshipman’s Journal so the months I spent on the ship have been written down somewhere in a very boring way. I’ve found my own Journal but all the pages relating to the two months on HMS Howe are missing. I do remember gunnery practice at sea when we fired all 8 of the 14” guns. That was noisy but impressive!”
Richard left HMS Howe on 6th December, going home for a week’s leave before joining the Leander Class Light Cruiser, HMS Ajax, in Portsmouth.
The Ajax had been built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow and launched in March 1934, completed in April 1935. During service in the South Atlantic, the ship had become famous for its part in the sinking of the German Pocket Battleship, Admiral Graf Spee. Subsequently transferred to Mediterranean service in Force H, it remained on station there into 1943.
At the time Richard joined the crew, HMS Ajax had just returned from the USA following major repairs after an air raid off the coast of North Africa during which a bomb had been dropped down the funnel. This incident killed most of the men on duty in the Engine Room.
As was normal routine during the War, all ships with a new crew had to set about a ‘working up’ programme which involved everybody becoming familiar with their Action Station duties, etc. This involved crew members practicing the many exercises which would turn the ship into an efficient fighting machine.
“So it was that I found myself sailing back to Scapa Flow where we arrived about Christmas Eve. On December 26th, Battleships and Cruisers of the Fleet returned from engaging and sinking the German Battleship “Scharnhorst” off the coast of Norway. Scapa Flow in winter is cold and wet with gales and most certainly not the best place to do anything!”
With working up completed, HMS Ajax departed for Plymouth on 18th January 1944, arriving on the 20th.
“Even in January the contrast between Scapa Flow and the greenery of Plymouth Sound was something to stir the heart. In Plymouth we stored ship and took on ammunition and all the other provisions needed for an extended period away. Having learned some of the arts of navigation at school I became the Navigating Officers ‘dogsbody’, called the Navigator’s ‘Tanky’. This was good as my Action Station was always on the ship’s bridge which meant that I had a front row view of what was happening; I was privy to where the ship was heading.”
On 28th January HMS Ajax departed for the Mediterranean, running for the first day through a heavy and stormy sea.
“Across the Bay of Biscay there was solid green water coming over the bridge, causing damage to the structure. The crew were mostly young and on their first sea trip. I recall the Sailors’ Mess Deck was awash with vomit, but they soon found their sea legs.
Our first stop was Gibraltar where we arrived on 31st January to warm sunshine! I remember it well, never having been further than Brittany in 1939. These were the days when overseas travel was the privilege of the very few and obviously not at all during wartime. After the drabness of Britain in winter black-out, it was a bit of magic!”
The ship left Gibraltar on the same day heading first for Algiers, then Malta, and finally ending up in the Red Sea via Alexandria and the Suez Canal. In the Red Sea the ship’s company spent ten days completing gunnery, anti-aircraft and torpedo firing exercises. Life at sea was made up of watch keeping, which for Richard was always on the bridge. Watches were four hours long, except the dog watches which were only two hours each. We were on duty four hours on and 4 hours off. There was constant look-out for enemy aircraft, submarine or E-boat attack. Typically warships en route would intercept shipping and checked whether from a neutral country and make sure that passage was authorised.
HMS Ajax stayed in the Mediterranean until May and in the intervening months travelled extensively in the central and eastern Med. Life was fairly routine but included a bombardment of Rhodes harbour. There was time in Malta and then Naples where the ship supported the Allied landings at Anzio a little further north up the coast.
“We were lucky enough to be in Naples during the eruption of Vesuvius which was spectacular. We were anchored in the Bay of Naples each night and had to hose ash off the decks each morning. I managed to visit Pompeii and climbed to the top of Vesuvius with the help of the US Army. I went to a performance of La Boheme at the San Carlo Opera House which was looking a little the worse for wear after years of war, but a memorable occasion nevertheless.”
“Our time in Italy was interrupted by an urgent dash back to Alexandria to help contain a mutiny on board a number of Greek warships which were lying in the harbour. The crews were threatening to shoot anybody who tried to board them. Eventually after 12 days stand-off two of the Greek ships were boarded during the night and the other ships surrendered with comparatively minor casualties. However there was a heavily armed Greek Cruiser in Port Said where the crew had also mutinied and we had to go there before the incident was over.”
HMS Ajax sailed for the UK and arrived in Gibraltar on 10th May in the middle of the night. The ship quickly oiled left before first light. At that time most of the cruisers in the Mediterranean were doing the same thing. Secrecy was vital because of movements related to the build-up for the D-Day Invasion. Upon arriving back at Scapa Flow, the next couple of weeks were spent on gunnery practice, with a few days in Greenock for installation of new radar sets. The ship left Scapa Flow 3rd June.
June 1944: The Invasion of Europe
Richard kept a diary of what he describes as “scribbled notes”. Much of his personal recollections here are prompted by the diary notes. He explains the pencilled writing has faded over the last 70 years and is not easy to read.
Saturday June 3rd
“This morning at 1130 we left Greenock in company with the Cruiser Squadron. This includes ‘Belfast’ (C.S.10.) (Cruiser class 10) ‘Diadem’ ‘Orion’ ‘Emerald’ ‘Argonaut’ and ourselves, HMS Ajax. Last night we left Greenock and what with all the secret conferences which have been going on, we more or less knew we were going to take part in the Second Front.
Whether we were to go direct or stop at a South Coast Port, we didn’t know until the Captain spoke over the S.R.E. after leaving Greenock. He said that we were now on our way to open the Second Front and our job was to get the army ashore and maintain them there. We were liable to do much bombardment and spend long hours at action stations. He said he had great confidence in us and that he knew that Ajax would maintain her fine traditions.
It is now just 1500 hours and I intend to jot all the happenings of the next few days in this diary. Naturally, at present we are all wondering what to expect from the enemy and where we shall be required first. I think that we may be going in the Cherbourg direction but that remains to be seen. At lunch time today the conversation ran on the lines of who’d be coming out OK. Personally I think that this is a bad line for a conversation but it was really said only jokingly. Somehow I have a feeling of confidence that we’ll all be OK and I hope on leave before long. (Much overdue)! At present we are just leaving the Firth of Clyde and entering the Irish Channel, or North Channel whichever it is. I’m not sure. I have the ‘first dog’ and unfortunately the Middle watch, however.”
Sunday June 4th
“2230. Tonight, but for the one most unfortunate factor, we should now be steaming in towards the French Coast. This morning however it was decided the weather was too rough for the invasion to start so the whole thing has been delayed. Much disappointment was felt when this was announced. Tonight, however, the prospects look better. The sun is out and the sea is moderating. At this moment, 2230, we are approximately in the same position as last night. During the day we have just steamed around in the Irish Sea.
When I think of it the fact that the whole Invasion of Europe has been delayed perhaps a matter of 24 hours, it seems incredible. There must have been much misgiving amongst the high officials today and great feats of reorganisation must have been performed. I believe it is just as well it didn’t start 24 hours before it was first due as the results might have been disastrous! Owing to the heavy seas more men and materials to support the initial landings could not have been put ashore. I only hope the delay won’t have any long term ill effects. I have the First Watch to-night so should get a good night’s sleep!”
Monday June 5th
“1315. After an anxious forenoon during which the sea was really rough, we have rounded Land's End and are now on our way up the Channel. The waves have gone down and the sun is shining. The coast of Cornwall is visible and the sea is a wonderful blue. One might almost say: perfect invasion weather! The Captain has just broadcast telling us the Second Front is liable to start any hour and we must be prepared for attacks from the enemy, particularly from E-boats, U-boats and aircraft. E-Boats seem to be the most probable source of danger.
22.30. ‘The Invasion is on’! - at Night Action Stations. The Commander told us what is to happen. I won’t go into details as they will soon be news. After Night Action Stations I visited the Plot and discovered the details from ‘Torps’ (Torpedo Officer). We go to Action Stations at 0400 which suits me nicely as I was to have had the Morning Watch anyway. We should arrive at our Bombardment position at 0445 and when it is light 0515 (approx) commence our shoot at a 6” shore battery. At 0645 Heavy Bombers come in and at 0725 our troops land.
At 20.00 tonight minesweepers started to sweep channels for us and during tonight paratroopers are to be landed. At the moment I am just about to turn in and hope no events take place before 0400. Everything is quite normal on the ship, just a feeling of excitement and everyone is pleased that we are at last doing what we came back from the Med to do.”
Wednesday June 7th (reflecting on 6th June action)
“01.45 today has been a very tiring but also very interesting day; since this morning, or in actual fact yesterday morning as this is being written in the Middle Watch. However, I’ll refer to it as today still. We closed up at Action Stations at 0400. We were then passing down the swept channel made by our Minesweepers earlier. The channel was marked by buoys and was only 4 cables wide. It led due South to the Invasion area - between Le Havre and Cherbourg. As we steamed down the channel at 12 knots we passed convoys of LCTs, invasion craft and transports of all kinds which were to come in later. Along the French coast our bombers were busy, with fires raging.
05.00 reached buoy marking end of swept channel, turned left opposite Gold Beach. Sighted target which opened fire. Started bombardment - target destroyed. There was heavy bombardment all along coast, with the whole area under heavy shelling.
0705 Anchored. Rocket ships in position and we opened fire 17 minutes before H-Hour. Smoke and Noise. Assault craft went in at 0725, all ships bombarding.
Extract from official Report:Off Gold Beach, Normandy coast for D-day assault. AJAX was the first ship to open fire on D-Day and partially destroyed her first target, a battery of 6” guns at Longues in 8 minutes - 114 x 6” shells at 62,000 yards, direct hits through two of the 5.9” gun ports of the 4 guns. It took another 2 hours to completely silence the battery of guns.
“There was intense noise, aircraft bombing shore defences, all ships bombarding, landing craft fitted with rocket launchers blasting off, amazing scenes of action. Yanks were to the right, with us to the left. The day wore on, towns beings shelled. I saw tankers and LCTs going up in smoke. Americans were clearly having difficulties on Omaha Beach.”
“20.00 shifted berth in shore for the night. Defence watch. Listened to the news – funny to think we are actually here! Night Action Stations.
“2130 had Middle Watch so turned in for a few hours.
“23.15 awakened by explosion. The whole ship was rocking, I thought we’d been hit. Action Stations - learned how a plane passed low overhead. He dropped his bombs midships; landed 10 yards astern. It was an ideal night for planes… moon, low clouds. JU88 passed low overhead and dropped bombs. We opened fire with everything. HMS Emerald appeared hit. Another near miss on Ajax port bow, terrific flash, blinded and doubled up, thought hit; terrific explosions due to the shallow water. Heavy flack of all descriptions coming from all around. Marvellous Brocks show. Many bombs dropped on shore and in water; an amazing sight.
“23.25 air raid over. Shifted berth again. Emerald OK, we don’t know where hit. Lots of activity during Middle Watch. HMS Argonaut opened fire again at unidentified plane. Big fires burning ashore, silhouetting landing craft; flares and many coloured explosions. Many unidentified planes in the area but till now no more bombs”
This is the end of Richard’s diary notes.
“On the morning of 9th June we dashed back to Plymouth as we’d fired all ammunition and needed to load more. Even so, we were back in Normandy the same night! It seems as though there were air raids most nights though none on a large scale, and by 11th June the coast in the area of ’Gold’ had been secured by the army and we moved along to ’Sword’ area opposite Ouistreham. The army were having difficulty in taking the town of Caen and we supported them by shelling all and every target from gun batteries to tanks, or even German infantry. We watched as our own bombers carried out raids - some being shot down. The German defence of Caen held up the advance inland and the town was eventually pretty much completely destroyed before it was captured.”
“We left Normandy on the 21st June and docked in Portsmouth where we had a partial refit, new gun barrels fitted, etc. I had seven days leave which was strange to return to comparative peace of home. But it was the time of the V1 pilotless bombs and they were disconcerting. Interestingly we had heard them go overhead in Normandy but didn’t know what they were; they made a noise like a lawnmower. The engine would cut out, there would be a few seconds of silence before a shattering explosion. It brought back memories of ‘exciting’ days of the Blitz in August and September 1940, but that’s another story! After the noise of Normandy, and indeed during the Blitz, stress levels were high and any unexpected noise made me jump.”
HMS Ajax left Portsmouth on 10th July and sailed for Gibraltar, ending up in Malta via Naples. A large force of warships was at that time assembled in Malta. This was to support the invasion of the South of France which took place on 15th August.
“This action was very tame compared to Normandy! Afterwards we stayed a few days in a magical place in Corsica called the Bay of Propriano. I said at the time that it was where I would go for my honeymoon - but 63 years later I have never made it!
“The rest of August and September were spent on various unexciting duties, as well as the usual exercises. In mid-October we were back in Naples and on the 14th we loaded a whole heap of army equipment on board, as well 24 war correspondents and set sail for Taranto where we took on oil and many jeeps and 700 soldiers and their equipment. After that we sailed for Athens where we were to support the Greeks in liberating their Country and bringing stability to their post-war political situation; mainly due to the Communists trying to take over the Country as it was liberated from the Germans.
“As we approached the rendezvous position south of Poros we became part of a major invasion force with other warships including Aircraft Carriers, Cruisers and Escort Destroyers as well as Landing Craft. Also escorting the fleet was a flotilla of Minesweepers. As we steamed slowly north into the Gulf of Athens the fleet found itself in an uncharted minefield. The sweepers were cutting mines loose and we and other warships were firing at them to explode them as they floated to the surface. One exploded close to us and chucks of the mine were found on board! Luckily none of the soldiers who were watching the activity leaning on the guardrails at the side of the ship were hurt.
“Inevitably first one of the minesweepers struck a mine, then a second, then two motor launches as well as an oil tanker which had drifted out of the swept channel hit a mine, caught fire and sank within five minutes. One of my memories is of a door frame floating past Ajax, complete with door and with a leg which was jammed in the semi-closed door! The door was wood so must have come from one of the Minesweepers. The fleet came to a grinding halt and one BBC reporter sent a dramatic account of events which presumably was broadcast on a BBC news.
During all this a JU88 flew down the line of ships but without dropping a bomb or being hit by our AA fire. We learned later that it was attacked by our own planes and shot down with the pilot baling out. Survivors from the tanker were picked up, some badly burnt, and once again the fleet moved forward, continuing to explode floating mines. We eventually dropped anchor outside Athens by which time it was too dark to disembark the troops. Next day various landing craft came alongside; the soldiers, jeeps and other supplies were off loaded. Later in the day we departed en route for Alexandria.
“Then we received a signal to sail for a rendezvous with a caique called ‘Santa Claus’ at first light off the coast of the German held island of Santorin, north of Crete. The caique had a Sergeant Major and 3 soldiers on board who had been in touch with the German Commander of the garrison on Santorin who said he was willing to surrender but only to a British warship!
“We stopped just off the island and sent a boat ashore with the Commander and a handful of Marines to find out whether the local population needed any urgent supplies. When the Surrender signal was received we steamed into the Bay of Santorin with its towering cliffs and its three little towns perched on top, and we could hear the church bells ringing in celebration. When the Commander returned to the ship he brought an invitation for ten of the ship’s company to lunch with the Archbishop and other dignitaries!
“I was lucky to be the one Midshipman from the Gunroom to draw the short straw and thus become one of the chosen ten. Judging from what I wrote in my Log it was quite an occasion. After being carried up to the town of Thera on the top of the volcanic crater with much cheering and kissing by the locals en route, not to mention a change of donkey when the current one got tired. We eventually sat down to a meal followed by a service in a jam packed church. After arriving back on board, we left for Alexandria where we stored ship having given everything to the locals of Santorin. Here my Log ends on October 20th 1944.”
Richard was subsequently sent to join HMS Easton, a Hunt Class Destroyer Type III, as Navigating Officer. Easton had been commissioned in December 1942, built in Cowes, Isle of Wight. It was a good deal smaller than Ajax so quite a change. When Richard joined the crew, the Commanding Officer was Lt. Loftus Peyton-Jones DSO DSC RN, still only in his early 20’s yet had already made a name for himself having been on submarines, sunk, taken prisoner, then subsequently escaped from an Italian Prisoner of War Camp. Despite being relatively new, HMS Easton had already achieved commendable battle honours having shared the sinking of Italian submarine ‘Asteria’ off Algeria and was later credited with the sinking of U-458 off the island of Pantelleria south of Sicily. Now, the ship was tasked to go back to Greece and destroy a Communist stronghold near Athens.
Richard remained in the Mediterranean on what might be termed ‘mopping–up’ exercises. HMS Easton then returned to England and joined a Destroyer Flotilla based on the East Coast. The main duty was convoy protection for the link with Antwerp, protecting against submarines, E-Boats and mines. After VE Day in May 1945 HMS Easton went into Chatham Dockyard for a refit in readiness for departure to the Far East where the War continued against Japan. Richard was on his way there when the Atomic Bomb dropped and hostilities abruptly came to an end. Like so many in a similar position, it was a massive relief, being aware that the fight against Japan would have been long and bloody. On return, Richard joined HMS Cooke in Hull. This was an old Lend-Lease Frigate which had to be returned to the USA.
“We sailed in January, not the best month for crossing the Atlantic in a small and very old warship, and the skipper decided we would go via the Azores where we spent a few restful days before continuing to Boston. I returned to UK via Halifax as a passenger on the RMS Mauretania, with many returning German POWs on board. Once home, I was appointed to a Tank Landing Ship acting as a ferry service, based in Stranraer and running back and forth to Larne in Northern Ireland. A lot of this was returning prisoners of war back to Germany. Our skipper was a Lt Cmdr RNR by the name of Ballard. He had lost one eye and wore a black patch, giving him a piratical appearance. This image was much enhanced by the fact that he had a pet Lemur that he’d brought from a visit to Madagascar. The Lemur used to perch in odd places and then jump down and bite the ear of whoever he’d landed on!”
On completion of the LST effort, Richard finished up in Glasgow moored on the River Clyde more or less in the middle of the City. He admits that he had quite a good time there waiting for de-mobilisation.
“We entertained the girl students from the Domestic Science College known as the Doe School! Also ate wonderful fish at Roganos Fish restaurant! We never drank at sea but when we finally came into harbour we would tend to make up for it. Whenever we were in harbour in a place where Brits, or English speaking locals were around we always had plenty of visitors, including plenty of women on board. A naval ship tended to attract girls like a magnet. In places like Alexandria, where I once went to a party hosted by King Farouk who was in power at the time, I had a gorgeous young Egyptian Princess as my partner. Pink Gin was our usual tipple and I remember on more than occasion we would offer a tot of Gin, which would actually be water, then we would top the glass up with gin, which was supposed to be water. Quite naughty of us really!”
Richard was demobbed in April 1946.
“Although I enjoyed my time in the Navy and felt privileged to have taken part in such an important part of history, if I’m honest it was the days during the Battle of Britain and the start of the London Blitz were really the most exciting time of my War. At the age of 14, I was a messenger for the ARP and I found myself cycling around in my tin had with dog fights going on over my head. Dad was a member of the Home Guard and we helped make Molotov Cocktails in the garage at home.
“I remember the first bombs dropping at the start of the Blitz and then the nightly raids, initially just bombs and then eventually with the added noise of anti-aircraft guns which had taken up residence nearby. We had a shelter built at the side of the house with six bunks and we spent many nights sleeping there. There was the night the pub down the road took a direct hit, and another night when we were showered with incendiary bombs. The house next door caught fire, as well as the house across the road and another one a few more door higher up our little cul-de-sac. The fire engines were too busy to do much about the situation. There was a neat little circular indentation in the concrete parking stand just outside our garage from a very near miss. For years afterwards the sound of the Air raid warning raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and even now when I hear it on TV, it has the power to generate have an emotive reaction!
“Over the weeks my brother, Bryan, and I collected many fragments of bombs, anti-aircraft shells, etc., as well as an unexploded incendiary bomb which, in trying to get the incendiary powder out of, we accidentally triggered the detonator and set it going! One night I remember Dad and I throwing ourselves flat on the ground in the front garden as a particularly close bomb came whistling down. It was a period of my life I wouldn’t have missed for anything!
“Of course this was wartime with its death and destruction, but we were all so young that any bad things would obviously happen to others, not us. It was exciting and we all had a purpose. I was just 18 when I joined Ajax, and a little over 19 when I was transferred to HMS Easton as Navigating Office. I was still a Midshipman because promotion to Sub-Lieutenant didn’t happen until reaching 21 years of age. Because the Log Book was official, inspected and ultimately signed by the Captain, none of the narrative includes the stresses of being on Watch, 4 hours on and 4 hours off, day and night for the time we were at sea. Of course this was most of the time. The Log doesn’t dwell on the awesome seas which we encountered at times, nor the fact that during all the time at sea we were vulnerable to attack from submarines in particular but also attack from aircraft, etc.
“In Ajax, Midshipmen slept in hammocks in what was called a ‘flat’ which was an open space which acted as a very crowded passageway for anybody wishing to get from fore to aft on the ship. All correspondence was censored though I had worked out a code in the spacing of certain letters which gave my Mum and Dad an idea of which part of the world I was in when I wrote. I remember the little cabin I shared with one other officer on HMS Easton; it was very small and my bunk was right up against the bare metal hull of the ship maybe ½” in thickness. I used to have visions of a torpedo coming straight through, not that I’d have known anything about it if it had!
“Much of the time we spent in the Mediterranean with HMS Ajax was preparing the Ship’s company for the invasion of Europe, though of course we were not aware of this at the time. Hence the fact that we were always practicing one combat drill or another, especially gunnery.