bob taylor's war
Posted by bob taylor on August 6, 2013, 12:56 pm, in reply to "Curious"
I was born in Coventry in 1925. I started at Spon Street School in 1930, a typical back street stone school of the day. It was built in 1873 and demolished by Germany in 1940.Most boys in my class were together for all of our nine years schooling. All mixed ok and I never remember any problems in or out of school even as it was a lower working class area. All of us went home for lunch. Not a lot to significantly remember about day-to-day activity. The normal school leaving age was 14 but in September 1939, when war had broken out, all boys who would become 14 before Christmas were called together and explained the new situation. As my 14th birthday was in November I was included. "Your schooldays are now over," we were told. "Factories here need extra labour urgently and you will straight away be directed to your new jobs. "My new job was with Armstrong Siddeley, a company situated not too far from the city centre that had switched over their main production from cars to aircraft engines. The main metal working area in this factory consisted of lathes, grinding machines, drilling and milling machines. I was allocated to the latter. These machines were equipped with revolving cutters designed to cut and shape metal down to the required size. The metal in question here was mainly cast iron. But in my case it was steel, specifically threaded steel screws. My job, or rather the machine's job, was to cut a screwdriver slot in the top of the screw. In the world of unfantastic endeavour I would rate this operation as pretty high. Under the watchful eye of the foreman I placed a screw in a chuck mounted on the machine's movable surface, then pulled a lever. The screw was propelled under a cutter so producing a slot. "There you are," said the foreman, "you've learnt a trade, carry on." Boxes of freshly minted screws arrived and I carried on! I don't know if there was any air-conditioning in this building but I doubt it. From where I stood the far wall was obliterated by a foggy haze made up with mostly cast-iron dust, oily smoke from the turret lathes and particles thrown up by the grinders. Plus almost everyone smoked, continually by many. |
Most of the men were unskilled but were needed for high-volume repetition work. They came from many parts of the UK and Ireland. The machines were set up by local skilled engineers and with a minimum of tuition could be operated by the newcomers. Everything was geared up for maximum production to meet the needs of the war.1939 drifted into 1940, which is when Germany's bombing offensive hotted up. My Dad had constructed an air raid shelter in the back yard and he, my Mum and I just sat the raids out as well as we could. Not only were bombs howling down but small incendiary devices were interspersed with them. They needed a bucket of sand pouring over them if you had the nerve. A particularly horrific raid took place in November 1940. A large part of the fine old medieval city centre was flattened. Surprisingly my factory didn't suffer major damage and those who outlived the night were at work next day, with tales to tell of course. In 1941 Germany invaded Russia and in December that year Germany declared war on the USA.
Itís 1942, at age 16 and still slugging away in the factory but I had also been coerced into becoming a civil defence messenger.This was on account of owning a bicycle on which one was expected to charge around at night delivering messages when all the phone were being destroyed. And for some inexplicable reason I was required to don a dark blue army uniform while performing this task. Now moving on from this unsavoury sideline Iím in 1943, the fifth year of the war Iíd become sick and tired of the whole business. This was when I had the bright idea of joining up. The fellow I worked alongside was from the Irish Republic a neutral country in the war, but had joined the RAF for the fun of it. Unfortunately he was in a crash and got wounded out. It was to him I broached the subject of joining up. I think I might join the navy I remember saying to him. Well if you do that ask to go into the naval air service, The Fleet Air Arm, they pay more money than the regular navy. But for me there in lay a problem, not having any education to speak of and having left school at 13 Iíd never get into that elite mob. But being Irish he didnít think Iíd have any problem at all, just tell you work at a company making aero engines, which I did, and you know a lot about them, which I didnít.
So I toddle off during a lunch break to the navy recruiting office. The lady naval
officer who interviewed me seemed to be somewhat impressed by the mixed
blurb I delivered, then together and with the fact some lackey come in to tell her
the car was ready to take her to lunch recruited me without further ado into the Royal Navy.
It seemed they didnít bother too much about age at that stage in the war and within a
month at age 17 I found myself at the railway station with a train permit to Skegness.
The navy had commandeered a large vacation complex in this seaside town and renamed
it HMS Royal Arthur and used it to process new intakes. Within a week I was kitted
out and heading for a six months course at an RAF technical establishment. I was to
specialise in theory and maintenance of aero engines used in the RAF and Fleet
Air Arm. I couldnít believe my luck and I was so near to where I lived I was able
get home every weekend. And above all, the Saturday night dance in my sailor suit
proved to be a huge success.
After struggling with my final exams I just got through and was looking forward to
seeing what the navy was all about when my posting to an RAF spitfire squadron in
the south of England came through. My time there was actually quite interesting, the
Germans had just started sending the V1 , the doodlebug, and we were on their flight
path as they headed to London. As they were picked up by radar the spitfires were
scrambled to try and shoot them down or sometimes tip the wing of the little devils
to disorientate them and send them into the ground. My job was pre-flight checks
which amounted to sitting in the cockpit starting the engine then having two helpers
wrap themselves over each side of the tailplane to keep the back end down while
I revved up the engine, with chocks under wheels of course, I did various other checks
and oil levels etc then taxied them over to the runway.
I seemed to be pretty competent at this not too demanding job when they sort fit to
transfer me to another RAF station in the same county. At this time in my career, if you can call
it such, I was having serious fears of the war drawing to a close before I ever got on a
But the day did come when I got a posting to Portsmouth dockyard to join the aircraft
carrier HMS Activity. This small vessel had been laid down as a merchant ship then
the navy had got hold of while it was still in the stocks and had a steel flight deck fitted
It had done good active service for a couple of years its planes being instrumental in the
sinking of two u-boats.
For me the thought of seeing planes buzzing around and doing spectacular landings on the
deck was something I never thought would happen. And now here I was walking up the
gang plank a dream come true. I had thought it rather strange as Iíd approached the ship
that there seemed to be an inordinate number of aircraft on the deck and in serried rows.
Then soon all was revealed, the Activity had been decommissioned for flying and was all
set up as a transport and was still loading to make a voyage to the South Pacific with
supplies for the Far East Fleet.
Nearby was the majestic three-masted HMS Victory, and its still there today, Admiral
Nelsonís flagship at that great victory, the battle of Trafalgar. But for me it seemed I was
off to the southern oceans on a venture more akin to that of HMS Bounty. And going by
the slapdash manner in which some of the crew seemed to be dressed I hoped thereíd be
no trouble like in Tahiti!
Portsmouth was awash with hustle and bustle with freighters and coaster coming and going
together with navy ships from different countries. The dockside inns had seamen from
everywhere dropping in for a drink and chewing the fat.
In the Royal Navy when moving on to a new posting you always took your large kitbag and
a small attachť case which was issued when joining which hold among other things a
navy cutthroat razor. You also had a hammock, an item Iíd never used until I joined
the Activity. I donít think the navy had changed in many respects from Nelsons day.
Take accommodation for instance, the ordinary ships crew of which I was a member were
housed in the foícastle, you slung your hammock from bars running over the long tables
where you ate. 18 inches per person, exactly the same as on HMS Victory. You ate in the area
the where you slept, there was no canteen or similar. At meal times you took it in turns
pick up food from the galley then make the precarious trip back down various gangways
and stairs to the foícastle. You may think from the foregoing without amenities it would not
be too pleasant an environment to be in. But it was ok, dress was lax, Captain Bligh would
have been appalled as would the skipper of the USS Caine. I guess there were lucky ships
and unlucky ships. For myself I considered myself lucky to have landed on this crate.
Then there was tot time. Everyday before lunch I seem to remember it was at about 11.30am,
the crew lined up mug in hand for grog which was one eighth of a pint of Jamaica rum with an
amount of water dispensed from an aged wooden barrel with the coat of arms emblazoned on it
When the practice was discontinued by the navy some time ago it caused understandable
discontent. Subdued only by the threat of the cat(oninetails), only joking.
So the Activity casts off from alongside its docking area in old Portsmouth and weíre on our way
down the Solent, the Isle of Wight can seen in the distance. We skirt the island and head down
the English Channel. Occupied France can eventually be seen on the port side and on to starboard
side the land where I was so recently tinkering with the jolly spitfires.
And so out into the wide Atlantic and making a beeline for the Bay of Biscay. Which reminded me
of the song of that name we sang at school, not so very long ago, but it seemed an eternity with all
that had happened since.
Another ship also a transport, in a way, headed down the Atlantic also bound for the Pacific
HMS Bounty. But her mission as a transport was to be a cargo of breadfruit. I hoped we had
more luck, for as we all know, the Bounty never returned
Our first port of call after traversing the Mediterranean Sea was Port Said at the entrance to the
Suez canal. A few itinerate vendors were allowed onto the well deck and stayed selling their
wares such as leather goods of which handbags embossed with camels and pyramids for girlfriends
were good movers. My really important purchase was a small well-padded pillow for my hammock.
canny sellers these boys they know just what the matelots needed.
From Egypt it was over the Indian Ocean to Colombo in Ceylon, were I enjoyed my first run ashore.
Having never left England before, the sights, colours and smells were a revelation. I bought a
small crate of tea, rationed back home, and mailed it to my parents. Surprisingly they did receive it.
Then we were off to sea again on passage to Australia.
Perhaps at this point you are wondering what I'm actually doing on this trip. In fact it's quite simple
they needed a 'specialist' to check on the condition of the cargo throughout the voyage.
So my mornings, up to tot time, were taken up with inspecting the aero engines that were stored
down below in the hanger, then walking around the flight deck looking at hawsers. These were used
to lash down the planes to steel eyelets that had been welded to the deck.
I didn't have to work watches like the seamen, and I was at something of a loose end during the
afternoons. But this dilemma was solved early in the voyage. The skipper, in his wisdom, had
roped in any of the officers who were fluent in certain subjects to give voluntary lessons to any
of the crew who wished to take part during their off watch free time. Which for me was afternoons.
As my actual schooling from age 5 to 13 was anything but extensive I was hooked on this opportunity
to set matters right. The 3 subjects I enrolled for were French, Mathematics and English composition.
And I must say I was an eager student hardly missing a day until we arrived back in England nearly
a year later.
So back to the voyage with Australia to look forward to. But before dropping anchor at Sydney
three events took place which I must relate. The first was Crossing the Line ceremony. This takes
place on all Royal Navy ships when they cross the equator for the first time on a voyage. Basically
it's all about King Neptune presiding over the initiation of new potential Shellbacks. A term used
for all those who endured the proceedings and passed with flying colours. The proceedings can
vary but in our case you sat in a hinged chair facing King Neptune with your back towards a large
pool of water. Neptune then proceeds to lather your face with a large mop full of soap suds he then
shaves this mess off with a large wooden cutthroat razor. After which a couple of his helpers
swivel the chair smartly back on its hinges you go flying up into the air and doing a summersault
before arriving with an almighty splash into the water. I don't know if all this dangerous frivolity
has now gone the way of tot time.
The next episode on our way across this section of the Indian Ocean was sighting and rescuing a
boatload of survivors from a torpedoed Liberty Ship. This ship's life boat was spotted around
lunch time by a sharp eyed officer of the watch and contained twenty men in very run down condition
who had spent three weeks adrift in this confined space. They were brought aboard and looked after
in the sick bay before being landed in Perth, Western Australia a few days later.
The culprit submarine was a rouge German vessel U862. Quite a lot has been written about this U-boat.
It finally ended up when the war in Europe ended trying to join the Japanese Navy but the Japs interned
the crew instead. Some time later our ship received a letter from the Governor of California, the ill
fated Liberty Ship SS. Peter Sylvester was register in Los Angeles. He was profuse in his thanks for
the rescue operation, which of course is what any ship would do, but it was kind of him drop us a line.
The Sylvester was carrying US Cavalry with over a hundred mules, also a civilian crew and a number
of US Navy Armed-Guard.
The third event that occurred before reaching our destination happened in the Great Australian Bight.
That is the large indent extending over a large length of the southern coast of Australia. The sea area
is notorious for regular storm conditions and as we passed through we hit one of the worst on record.
Our small ship was tossed around like a cork and my hawsers holding the planes down were snapping
left, right and center. Seamen were up there on the flight deck trying to effect some kind of damage
control but it wasn't long before the Captain ordered everyone to go below and let the storm do its
worst. By the time it abated we had lost a considerable number of those brand new aircraft over
So after coming all this way we arrive in Sydney with our cargo decimated and looking in pretty
bad shape. But thatís life on the high seas I guess, you just canít be sure of anything. Exciting though!
Sydney is wonderful, well it was then, but it may be better now with Opera House and new buildings
I donít know, but when I first walked through the town in the southern sunshine with everywhere
looking spic and span a few high palm trees here and there fluttering I remember saying to myself
I must be in heaven. I found the shops and department stores the height of modernity and brimming
with goods and produce. This was like coming from a war zone into paradise.
We spent a glorious two weeks in Sydney sampling its delights, from swimming at Bondi Beach
to dining at their fine restaurants and generally getting through our amount of accrued pay.
Our mission now we had arrived down under was the mundane task of ferrying war material from
India back to Australia. It was decided to avoid going through The Bight and its storms and rather
take the northern route inside the Barrier Reef and up and around Cape York and risk being
attacked from nearby Japanese occupied Sumatra and Java.
We arrived in Trincomalee Ceylon after an uneventful trip. Then on to Cochin India before returning
to Sydney, stopping at Brisbane on the way back. This was to be our routine back and forth from
now on. Which suited me perfectly as my studies were progressing well and I had good commendations
for my efforts. And the atmosphere on the ship was on the whole very pleasant. There was little in
the way of luxuries apart from a soda fountain which served a drink called a goffer. I never
figured out how it was concocted but it was quite tasty. Music was played over the ship speaker
system even it was often dominated by the captainís requests for the tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan
with emphasis on the Mikado and HMS Pinafore. Movies were shown on those constantly warm
evening outside on the Well Deck. And there were plenty of competitive sports going on. And Iíve
get to tell you this, the entire setup beats working in a factory hands down.
But all things eventually change and for us laying at anchor in Trincomalee it was the news that the
war had ended. Weíd already been aware that the atom bombs had been dropped on Japan so in
that respect it was not that big a surprise. Perhaps that was not such a bad thing as a massive fleet had been
assembled that was soon to invade Japan with an estimated loss of two million lives.
Many ships of the British East Indies and Pacific Fleets were in Trincomalee at the time, one anchored
nearby was lit up at night with celebration lights, I believe it was the battleship HMS King George V.
Our last voyage before returning home was to Singapore. The town was a shambles with many
Japanese soldiers being put to work clearing up debris, others were just standing around smoking.
I walked with a friend to Ghanghi prison where a great many POWís had been incarcerated. We picked
up various Jap military stuff as souvenirs. We also spoke to many of POWís who were waiting to
be repatriated and a few came back to the ship with us. One man from my home town was in particularly
bad shape, terribly thin with his ribs protruding. I guess young men are amazingly resilient as two
years later I received an invitation to his wedding and he looked as fit as a fiddle.
Three months after VJ we were back home sailing along the Clyde to Glasgow and flying a paying-off
pennant. From Singapore we had been back to India and made various other ports in the area before
returning, stopping at Port Tewfik in Egypt and our last port of call Gibraltar.
All in all I felt somewhat like Charles Darwin returning after his voyage of discovery on HMS Beagle.
I had really found my potential, having become quite fluent in French. And felt a real affinity with maths
and pleased with my advanced state in the subject.
I was somewhat sad to be leaving the Activity which I heard later had had its steel flight deck removed
and had reverted back to its intended purpose, a merchantman.
I was then twenty and my life in the Royal Navy had come to a close.