TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW WITH FREDERICK “ROY” HULL 12 AUGUST 2017 FOR WARGEN.ORG
(Interviewer: Christopher Moriarty)
CM: Now your name is Frederick Roy Hull but you’ve always been known as Roy?
RH: Well my names are Frederick William Patrick after my father and my paternal grandfather but my mother never liked any of the names at all and she said right, he’s going to be Roy and I’ve been Roy from the cradle. Through school, through the services, with my nieces and nephews, with my grandchildren, with my great grandchildren. I’m Roy, always have been.
CM: Right Sir, can you tell me your name rank and serial number at the end of your service?
RH: I was Petty Officer Frederick William Patrick Hull, CJX712331 and I was a Petty Officer Gunnery instructor.
CM: When and where were born Roy?
RH: I was born in May Road Twickenham and I was told I came in a bag on the back of the bike of Nurse Higney and that’s where I always believed babies came from. They were delivered by bag.
CM: What did your father do?
RH: My father worked in a music shop at the time repairing musical instruments and he was also a french polisher.
CM: Your mother stayed at home?
RH: Mother was a housewife and stayed a housewife until the war and then like most women she went into munitions actually, because of the war.
CM: Did your father serve in the First World War Roy?
RH: My father served with the Kings Royal Rifle Corp and went to France. He was injured at Ypres. A piece of shrapnel entered his forearm somewhere and travelled down his arm to his wrist and out through his thumb. And as long as I can remember my father always had a thumbnail that grew in two halves. It resulted in him being sent home to a hospital in Chatham for recovery. I think this was in 1917 and the war ended in 1918 so he never went back.
CM: DO you have any brothers and sisters?
RH: Yes, I’m the eldest of three. I have a sister, Vivian Mary, who was born on the 29th May 1931 and my young brother, unfortunately no longer with us, was born on 20th December 1936 and because he was so near to Christmas he got the name Christopher. He hated having a birthday so close to Christmas as he invariably didn’t come off too well as far as presents are concerned.
CM: What was it like when you were growing up there? Did you have a happy childhood?
RH: Yes I did. We never had a lot as did most people in those days. We lived in a council house. We ate well. We didn’t have holidays like families have today. I think we had a ride on a charabanc with solid tyres down to the coast. To Brighton and to see relatives that lived at Southsea. We never had a lot but we got our usual presents at birthdays and Christmas time. It was a family time then. All the family used to meet, the Kileys in particular, more so than the Hulls. I remember the Kiley parties, my mother was one of thirteen, the second eldest. Two died young so there was really only eleven survived. My father was the eldest of seven. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a market gardener and I remember him working on market gardens on what is now London’s Heathrow Airport. It used to belong to a gentleman by the name of Secret, Secret’s Market Gardens. It used to be a back breaking job. My father’s father was a master baker and spent all his life in the bakery doing night work, baking bread. I only remember him as a white haired old gentleman.
CM: What do you remember about the build up to the war and the outbreak of war?
RH: Well, there was always something going on, a lot of toing and froing between Mr Chamberlain, who was the Prime Minister then, supposedly getting an assurance from Adolf Hitler that he didn’t have any big intentions about Europe or claiming any of it which was all a lot of hogwash of course. When he flew back I remember seeing him on the news, we didn’t have television those times, at the cinema getting off an aeroplane and waving a piece of paper and saying peace in our time. Which unfortunately didn’t last very long. And the Germans were always threatening to invade….
CM: Can you remember the actual outbreak of war?
RH: Yes, I remember it very well. A Sunday morning and Chamberlain came on the radio and said that he had asked Adolf Hitler to withdraw his forces from Poland otherwise a state of war would exist between England and Germany. And he came on and said no such assurance having been given I now declare that a state of war exists. And then about ten or fifteen minutes later I remember one of our neighbours going up and down the road saying go indoors and put your gas masks on. He panicked somewhat. And then later in the day I remember going out with a shovel and filling sandbags….
CM: The same day war was declared?
RH: The same day war was declared, yes. We done it at the recreation park I remember and that actually became an intermediary fire station, an ARP station. And I think sandbags were used to protect the windows and doors around it. And of course a lot of neighbours husbands and sons, the elder ones, all of a sudden went off to war.
CM: How old were you in 1939 if you don’t mind me asking?
RH: War was declared on 3rd September 1939 and I would have been twelve on the 19th October following so I was eleven and eleven months.
CM: Do you remember the Battle of Britain at all?
RH: O vividly, yes. I mean as the war got into its stride, so to speak, we were always being raided by German bombers at night time. And I was very reluctant, I used to upset my mother, I wouldn’t get out of bed and go under the stairs where we had some bedding. It was considered one of the safer places….
CM: Why wouldn’t you do that?
RH: I thought that if there any harm going to come to me, it would come to me whether I was in bed or under the stairs. And I liked my bed….. But my mother would shout and shout at me. The one thing that did make me move was when I heard the whistle of the bombs coming down. Then I would move myself and go down.
CM: Did the area you lived in suffer much bomb damage?
RH: We did indeed. They built a lot of communal shelters plus people had individual shelters, Anderson shelters they were called which went up in the garden. And they were made comfortable, or as comfortable as possible, with blankets and food, biscuits, tea and cocoa making materials in there and the families used to spend a lot of time in there. And there were all sorts of shelters, Anderson shelters and another one used to be a steel cage kept indoors. You used to crawl into it, it was only three feet high I remember.
CM: The idea being that that would protect you if the house collapsed?
RH: Well yes, that was the idea that you wouldn’t get trapped. And in the communal shelters which were zigzagged under the park I think there were bunks and we used to push our blankets and toilet gear down in the pram, an old pram.
CM: How many of you would be going if you needed a pram?
RH: There would have been mum and the three children. Dad wouldn’t be there. He would be working. In fact when the war came he moved from doing musical instruments to be a painter and decorator. But then he went and worked for London Transport on security. And he was like a night watchman, he used to guard the gates of the depot, Fulwell depot, where the trolley buses were, I think the trams had finished by then.
CM: What made you join up Roy?
RH: Well, my mother had four brothers who were all in the services to get away from home cause they didn’t like sleeping top to tail. Three of them joined the navy between the wars, all joined as boy seamen. And the other one failed an eyesight test so he became a merchant sailor. And we used to have letters and cards from them between the wars, from China and Malaya, from Singapore. And pictures of them. And when they came home, they came home on one occasion with a parrot and one had a monkey on one occasion…
CM: Brought a monkey home?
RH: Yes, a marmoset monkey. So I had a sort of closeness about the navy. I wanted to be a sailor. And then of course when the war came I thought I ought to go in the navy. I really didn’t consult my parents about it very much. In fact I think I went off of my own accord to join up in Charing Cross Road, London. I travelled up on the train to Alhambra House.
CM: And that was a specific navy recruiting office was it?
RH: Yes, it was a navy recruiting office. And I remember there was an old Chief Petty Officer there. “Does your mother and father know about this laddie” he said. So I said they’ll know about it when I get home.
CM: Can you remember the date you actually signed up or started in the navy?
RH: Well I must have gone up in the spring of 1943 and I recall I had to do an education test. Just to make sure you weren’t an imbecile, add a few figures together and that sort of thing. And I came back and told mum and dad that I joined the navy and would be going in eventually. And by that time I was attending the grammar school, I’d passed the eleven plus before the war. My mother said this was daft because you are not going to complete school so we will have to go down and tell them. I remember her coming down to the school and seeing Mr Bligh and said well Frederick, as she had to refer to me as Frederick in school, has joined the navy and will be enlisted soon so there is no point in him carrying on with his education. And I remember being told that he was bitterly disappointed because he had hoped that I would have stayed on and perhaps gone on to university. Anyway, I left school. I would imagine it would have been Easter of ’43. Either Easter or summer, I can’t remember.
CM: So sometime between Easter and summer was when you started in the Royal Navy?
RH: No, I left school because I had signed up for the navy and would be called up. In actual fact nothing happened for a while and having finished school I got a job working for the American Air Force, at Bushey Park, Teddington. I was a mimeographist. Using a duplicating machine. What I used to do was put these stencils on a drum, then put how many copies I wanted, start the thing up or wind it, I can’t remember if the thing was electric or what, then put them in various boxes for different departments. I worked in the Judge Advocates General Department.
CM: Can you remember which American Air Group this was?
RH: It was, or it became SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. And the big boss, who was there was Eisenhower. Of course he was made Supreme Commander. I enjoyed it there because I used to ride around in jeeps with the drivers and I got friendly with the Americans and they used to take me horse riding at the stables in Bushey Park. And I used to go to the USO concerts, just like our ENSA. I remember seeing Joseph Louis Barrow, Joe Louis, the boxer, a film star called Carol Landis and a film star Adolphe Menjou. There were several others. And the band leader who later on in the war got lost over the channel, Glenn Miller. He used to play every other week with his band, who of course were all army personnel. Douglas Fairbanks jnr was another one, he came there as Lieutenant Commander, US Navy.
CM: So Roy, can you remember when you went to a Royal Navy establishment after your sign up?
RH: Well there came the day when the letter arrived saying I had to report back to Alhambra House where I had actually joined up. As far as I can recall that was September 1943 (NB: Probably 1944). I went up to Alhambra House, there was some tea and biscuits there, and all these youngsters kept arriving. And then we were told there was a bunch coming up from Southampton and Portsmouth. And eventually there was about fifteen of us, we marched out the back and got on board an army lorry and were taken to Euston station. When I went up my dad came with me and I recall this Chief CPO saying to him that even though he was not supposed to say this because it referred to troop movements, I would be leaving Euston that afternoon at four o’clock if you want to come back and say goodbye to him. So my dad decided to do that. We had carriages reserved for us and eventually we got on the train and headed north. We went to Preston I recall where we got off the train and climbed aboard another lorry and were taken to an army camp where we were lined up and issued with a straw palliasse and a blanket. We then went to a Nissen hut and would be there overnight before proceeding to Fleetwood to catch the boat to the Isle of Man.
CM: Now Roy you say a straw palliasse?
RH: Yes, a straw palliasse. A mattress type of thing. And I remember when we woke up the next morning we were all” coochie”.
RH: All scratchy…..
CM: You hadn’t been issued with uniforms by then?
RH: Oh no. We were still all in our mufti as it were. Next morning we mustered and went aboard a lorry again and we were taken to Fleetwood. And went aboard the ferry to the Isle of Man because the boys training ship, HMS Ganges, which had been established for years and years and to which all my uncles had been when they were youngsters, had been closed down, not closed down, they just got rid of the boys.
CM: OK Roy, so HMS Ganges was the training base near Harwich in Essex and boy sailors were no longer going there which is why you were going to the Isle of Man.
RH: They stopped the boys from going there and it was used for hostilities only, people who were in for the war and all the boys were transferred to Cunningham’s Holiday Camp in Douglas on the Isle of Man, which became known as HMS St George. So that’s where we were heading. We got on board the ferry from Fleetwood to Douglas, then onto a lorry. It stopped outside the gates I remember. We fell in and a Chief Petty Officer was there and he said these are the pearly gates, if any of you want to change your mind you can find your own way home. But once you go through those pearly gates, King and country has got you. Of course, nobody moved and in through the gates we marched into the new entry division. Incidentally, more boys had joined the ferry from various parts of England, Scotland, Wales, there must have been fifty or sixty of us going into the new entry division. We spent the next couple of days collecting uniforms, gas mask, tin helmet, kitbag, hammock, blanket and getting our hair cut which was the most important thing. That was an “up and over” with the razor. It didn’t leave you with much hair. I suppose they thought that once they got it off we wouldn’t have to worry about it too much again. And we slept in the chalets. As I said, it had been a holiday camp and there were chalets there where campers had lived. That’s where we went. Four to a chalet. Next day we had to climb into uniforms and then visit the tailor. He made chalk marks where the uniforms had to be changed or altered, they looked like a sack… and then we spent the next week or so going to the sick bay, getting inoculations, being examined, drop your trousers, cough…. all that sort of thing. And the swimming pool where we had to prove that we could swim. And dive for a brick at the bottom of the pool.
CM: Was there a minimum distance you had to swim Roy?
RH: No. I don’t recall there was a minimum distance, you just had to be seen to be swimming and recovering this brick. And incidentally, you didn’t wear a costume, you wore a duck suit, which was a white canvas suit that sailors used to wear abroad at one time, a very cheap cottony stuff. As you can imagine it clung to you as you got out. I don’t recall how long you were in the new entry division. I think it was a matter of weeks, generally getting acclimatised to the navy, finding out what it was all about. We found out that the captain of HMS St George was Capt Bell who had been captain of the Exeter at the battle of the River Plate, Dinger Bell and his wife. Of course they lived on site. Eventually we became classes. The camp itself was in two halves. One half one side of the road, one half the other, with a tunnel that went underneath. New entry division, the parade ground, the gym and a lot of the classrooms, instruction rooms, were on one side and where you lived and slept was on the other, on what was called upper camp. And I became a member of Benbow Division, the divisions being named after admirals. Benbow, Hansen, Nelson, that sort of thing. I was Benbow 190 which was advanced class boys and Benbow 90 was ordinary boys. So I was considered to be one of the cleverer ones I suppose, as I was an A class boy. And then straight away you started doing all your instructions. Now in the summer months you’d do instructions morning and afternoon and in the evening after tea. But in the winter you used to do instructions in the morning, athletics and pastimes in the afternoon while it was still light and school in the evening.
CM: Now when you say instructions Roy what exactly were you doing?
RH: Well you might do seamanship in the morning or gunnery or signals and then you’d go to school in the afternoon and school was about three or four miles away. A proper school but it belonged to the navy, solely. We used to march there every day school day, in a big column. Carrying your macintosh across your arm in case it rained. In the middle of the column there would be three drummers, just to keep the time.
CM: So you would march to the time of the drums to go to school…..
RH: To go to school. You would reverse the schedule week after week. School in the morning, seamanship in the afternoon then pastimes or sport in the evening. Then the next week you’d do signals in the morning, school in the afternoon, etc.
CM: Seamanship training… did you do anything on the water.
RH: Yes. We used to go down to the dock at Douglas and we had boats down there. We used to take the boats out.
CM: Sailing boats or rowing boats?
RH: Cutters and whalers with sailing masts and everything and you used to sail around in them or row. Learn to pull on your oar and that. And our instructor I remember, if you weren’t paying attention to the instructions in the boat would take the tiller out and throw it at you. He wasn’t a very nice man. Spider Hibbert. We called him spider cause he was like a spider. And if you misbehaved during a course of instruction with him he used to say report to my chalet tonight at five o’clock or whatever and he’d say right, get the bat. And behind the door in his chalet there used to be a cricket bat. Get the chair and you used to have to get the chair. You’d put your body over the back of the chair, grab hold of the seat and he’d get the bat and whack your backside. He’d give you two or three to make you wince and then he’d say there’s the pen, sign it. And you’d have to sign your name on the bat. Then put it back behind the door. Ballakermeen was the name of the school. And what I remember in particular about that was when you’d done your last trip before leave, if you were going on leave for Christmas or Easter or whatever it was, you’d try and break the record for the four miles. And what happened is you would have a whole column of boy seamen and the naval schoolmasters would be marching with us and they weren’t very much disciplinarians, they were teachers. And the drums would be tapping out the rhythm faster and faster and the teachers would be saying slow down, slow down. So the drummers would slow the beat only to pick it up again as quickly as they could. (See video for Roy’s impression of the drummers……). I don’t know what the record was for marching back but the people of Douglas got used to us I think going past their houses and top of the road. And when you did sports it was all organised sports. You played football, you played hockey or rugby or you did boating. And then you’d have sessions where you did washing, laundry. You’d scrub your hammock, wash your blankets, do all that sort of thing. I think we used to get up about six thirty and fall in and do the chores around the chalets. Cleaning the gardens, sweeping the lines and making it look tidy until seven o’clock. Then you used to go and wash and shave, if you were shaving… get your uniform on and go to breakfast at eight o’clock in the dining hall. All our food was served on tin plates. We were always hungry. People used to get parcels from home and would always used to worry whether they got food inside.
CM: Was the whole thing a bit of a shock to the system Roy or were you all young enough that you just coped?
RH: Well it was. I don’t suppose any of us had discipline like that at home, or I doubt it. It was very much discipline. Spider Hibbert, this chap I was talking about, he used to wear a whistle and chain. He was a gunnery instructor like I later became, I thought I would never be like him. But he would take this chain off, you would be doing rifle drill and he would flick his chain at you, across your hands when it was cold. I always said if I ever met him at sea I would push him over the side. I think what it was, he was a time expired sailor from pre-war who came back as a reservist and because of his age and that he didn’t go to sea and was sent to the boys training camp as an instructor. But for them we would not have had instructions. And then once during the course you would have work ship and you would do all the chores in the camp that benefitted the camp….
CM: So maintenance…..
RH: Yes, that sort of thing. And I remember if you got, it’s really hard when I think back to it, if you got mail from home you used to have to open it in front of a WREN in case you got money in it. And they’d take it off you and keep it cause you weren’t allowed to have a lot of money. We incidentally used to get two shillings a week (10p in decimal) when you were a boy seaman. You earned more than that, 8 shillings and sixpence I think (42.5p decimal) but you only got two bob. (CM: slang. One bob equals one shilling equals 5p decimal). And you used to go to the gymnasium on a, I think we got paid on a Friday, and you put your gym shoes on because you didn’t dare damage the gymnasium floor and it was all stepping forward very smart like. And the instructors would be standing there, you would take your hat off, call your number and name out and they would put two shillings in the middle of your hat plus a little white coupon which allowed you to buy a bar of chocolate or a kitkat or something or other in the canteen. But while you had your hat off the instructor would be standing there and he’d say…. Aahhh haircut!
CM: Looking back on it Roy do you think the whole training regime prepared you for what was to come on board a ship or could it have been better?
RH: No. It taught you to work together. It taught you about sailoring. It taught you about the things you would come up against on board a ship and that sort of thing. Knots and splices, signals, hoisting and lowering boats and all that sort of thing you would do on board ship. One of the things you got amongst your kit was a seamanship manual and you were encouraged to read that and learn it.
CM: OK Roy, so after your training had finished on the Isle of Man what was your first posting?
RH: You did your final examinations in seamanship, in signalling, in sailing, boating. School. You were expected to pass school examinations as well. And you went into Draft Division, which means you were waiting for your first ever posting. Well I went into Draft Division and the next thing I knew my class was sent on fourteen days foreign service leave which meant we were going to get posted to a ship overseas. Now one of my classmates all through my time, a South African, Matt McClennan, had relatives in Scotland but had never ever met them so he used to spend his leave with me. And he came home with me when we had this fourteen day foreign service leave. We were generally enjoying ourselves at home and one day the old telegraph boy, with his buckle belt and little hat, cycled up to the house, came up, knocked on the door, and we had seen him from the window. Mum went to the door and he said McClennan? Matt said yes, but had turned white. I remember mother said perhaps it’s to do with his family. Anyway, we waited while he opened it and he said I’ve got to go back, I’ve been recalled, I’ve got to catch the boat back tonight. So I said if you’ve got to go back I’m almost certainly going to have go back as well. So we thanked the telegraph boy and said I expect there will be another one in a minute. Anyway, sure enough about twenty minutes later another telegraph boy turns up. Hull? He said. Yeah, I know what it is. Same thing. My mum had already said when Matt got his that I’d better start getting your clothes together, you know your clean washing and all that stuff. What we had to do was catch a train back to Fleetwood that night and we were due to go back on the night ferry. So we left and went back. Caught the night ferry but we never pulled out till two in the morning I think, from Fleetwood. Which meant we arrived six o’clock, half past six in Douglas, onto lorries, back up to the camp. Anyway, we were told to go to the clothing store and we were issued with tropical kit and told we would have a muster next morning. A kit inspection. So that was a performance, you had to lay it all out, it had all to be rolled up the same width as the seamanship manual, all the way up. We done that. Right they said, you are on the ferry tonight. So we caught the ferry back again, caught the train from Fleetwood, from Fleetwood to Crewe, then Crewe to Falmouth. Then we caught a boat out and there was a LCA carrier out in the bay….
RH: Landing Craft Assault. Had rows of them. It was acting as troop ship and we went aboard there, pulled out, we didn’t know where we were heading for, but anyway, we eventually finished up in Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now. Disembarked and went into a transit camp. Then we were told that we were going to Trincomolee on the other side of the island the following day to join the battleship Nelson. And that was our final destination, we were crew of Nelson. The next day we mustered with our kit bags and hammocks, down to the jetty. This pinnace came in and loaded all the stuff and we went out in the harbour and I remember going round the stern of this battleship. And I had never seen such a big ship in all my life! How on earth it floated I’ll never know. It was so wide. Anyway, we went aboard and down to the boys mess and half an hour after we went aboard we let go from the buoy and out through the boom and to sea. We went aboard about four and at half four we were off.
CM: OK Roy, so you joined HMS Nelson, thirty minutes after you got on board it sailed out of Trincomelee harbour and this was round about July 1945.(NB: Roy originally said Oct 1944)
RH: Yes. We had no idea where we were going of course. And we finished up going to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Because having got to sea we formed up with a sort of fleet for protection. I remember there were two cruisers, one of them was the Exeter. (CM: Probably the Sussex, as Exeter was sunk in 1942). And there was an aircraft carrier, a flotilla of destroyers and then minesweepers. And of course being flagship we were in the centre and we had one cruiser ahead and one behind us. The carrier was behind that. Then the destroyers were around us and then the minesweepers. What was happening, the Japs were in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and we were going to give them a bit of a pasting apparently. But we knew that they had sown mines so we had to negotiate the minefields. And we in fact lost two sweepers because once we got within striking distance of the Islands they sent out their aeroplanes, kamikazes, and they tried to get to the big ships of course but they couldn’t get through the screen. Of course everybody opened up on them so didn’t stand much of a chance. But one of them actually came down behind the funnel of one of the sweepers. The two sweepers with us were HMS Squirrel and HMS Vestal. And I can’t remember which one was which. One of them had a kamikaze aeroplane hit it behind the funnel and broke its back and sank. And the other one actually hit a mine, or trapped a mine, cut it loose and it came back and hit the ship. We took survivors on board, being a major ship and having a big sick bay. It only lasted a few hours I suppose. We probably might have been around for about ten hours, something like that.
CM: What was your action station?
RH: Well my action station was the six inch lower quarters, the shell room, the six inch shell room. Which I didn’t like because I used to go down a big hatch on a chain. The hatch used to be closed with the chain on it and I used to think if the ship is sinking I’ll never get out of there. That was my action station. But as I say we went out immediately I joined the ship but when we came back to Trincomelee three or four days later my workplace was quarterdeck and I remember the captain of the quarterdeck coming to me where I was working and telling me to get up to the gunnery office, your required by the chief GI. So off I went there and he said right laddie go down and put your best bib and tucker on. I was in a boiler suit as I was working…. so I had put shorts on and a white front and I came back. He made me stand to attention and walked all round me, then said yes, you’ll do. You are now the Admiral’s messenger. Wherever the Admiral goes, you will follow him like a little puppydog. And your action station will be on the Admiral’s bridge. And I thought thank Christ I’m out the shell room. So I took up the job. The staff officers and the flag officer would tell you what your duties are and what time you are required. So I used to go up on the bridge and the Admiral’s bridge was one step higher than the captain’s bridge, up the superstructure as high as you could bloody get. So you had an all round view of what was going on.
CM: Who was the Admiral Roy?
RH: Vice Admiral Sir H T C Walker. He was known as hooky Walker because he had lost an arm at Zeebrugge in the First World War and carried on in the navy. And in fact he had a brass hook that he used to wear in harbour but at sea he just used to pin his shirtsleeve to his chest. Nice bloke actually. But he was the C-in-C East Indies and I clashed with him a couple of times when I was up on the bridge. Because when we came into the harbour, we used to operate out and back, out and back, as the flag officer he used to get saluted by the other ships. They used to call their ships company to attention and face to starboard and the duty officer, or the officer of the watch would stand there and salute the flag. And I was just there with my chin on my arms resting on the rail and he came and put his hook down the back of my neck and said stand up laddie, stand up. They’re saluting me. But he treated me right. His chief of staff was a Captain Abbot who was the first real naval officer that I recall seeing with huge tattoos. He had dragons up his arm. He was a big man Captain Abbot, he must have been six feet one. And he had these huge dragons all the way up his arm. And then he had a New Zealand radar officer I remember. And then his own flag lieutenant. And so I used to go up on the bridge and they would say to me, either the admiral would be there, or he’d go down and go off the bridge and they’d say stand down now, come back at four or whatever. And if they sounded action stations that’s where I used to head for. But I remember being at sea and I was up on the bridge during the night and the New Zealand radar officer said to me do you think we can have some “Kai”, kai is cocoa, a brew at night time and you go the galley, there would be a great big cauldron of it, grease floating on top. You’d dip your fanny in it or your jug…..
CM: Your fanny…..?
RH: Yeah, they’re called fannies funny enough. A rum fanny, anyway, I carried it up to the bridge. I got halfway up the companionway and I bloody slipped. The jug went up in the air then tumbled down the steps. Cocoa went all over the place. And of course we were at sea so it was a dark ship, no lights so the enemy couldn’t see us, that sort of thing. And the captain was in his sea cabin which was in the superstructure so he was close to the bridge. The door opened and he came out in the dark and said who’s that? And I hid under the companionway and decided not to say anything. Who’s that, there’s got to be somebody there? I know you’re there. And eventually I had to say it’s me sir. Who’s me he said. I am your messenger sir, I dropped the kai. Well you’d better clear it up in the morning he said. And don’t make so much bloody noise. So next morning when it was daylight I got a bucket and had to clean all the stairs and wash all the cocoa away. Anyway, things went on and we went out and back and out….
CM: How much action did you see when you were out?
RH: Not a lot really because we used to stand off a long way, being the battleship, and fire our guns over a long range.
CM: What was the range of the big guns on the Nelson?
RH: Twenty two miles. At the limit. A shell was a ton and a quarter, sixteen inches.
CM: So what about living conditions on board? What was the food like for you?
RH: On the boys mess, not too bad. They used to take care of us. But I learned a lesson. We always used to go down and ask, incorrectly, for gash, which was anything leftover. And I went down on one occasion when I was cook for the mess and said to chef any gash? And he said get your arse out of here. He said for your information gash goes over the side, gash is rubbish. What I meant is leftovers, I used the wrong word so I learned not to use that again. But we would go back and say any spare and he would say he would see if he could find some. And if it was suet pudding or something you’d get another lump and take it down and share it out. But we went out on one occasion and we got out to sea and the captain said he would address the ship’s company in ten minutes time. And so we waited. They had already dropped the first atomic bomb, I don’t know which was first and which was second….
CM: Hiroshima was first wasn’t it?
RH: Well they had dropped the first one and then the captain came on and said for your information the Americans have dropped a second atomic bomb at Nagasaki. I won’t go into details but the Japanese have offered to surrender unconditionally. Well that’s what they were demanding. So our little escapade will not go ahead now. There will be other plans which I will tell you about later, but I can tell you that we were heading for Malaya where it should have been the original D-Day on Sunday. And the plan was to land troops and retake Malaya. But he said that that would not now happen of course. And I’ll advise you as and when what happens next. Anyway, we all thought that’s good, it’s all come to an end and that. And I remember him coming on the next day or later saying that we are going to land the troops as planned at Port Swettenham and Port Dixon, but because the Japanese have offered to surrender it’s hoped that they will adhere to their promise and not fight. And there will be no gunfire or anything. But just to be sure we’ll be there in case. And I remember the French battleship, the Richelieu, was with us. And before that, he said we will be going to Penang Island to accept the surrender of the Japanese at Penang. Which we did. And they were told to bring the charts of the minefields which I cuddled in a pool of blood….
CM: Do you want to expand on why you were doing that….
RH: Well after they signed the surrender plan we went down the Malacca Straits to Port Swettenham and Port Dixon and we stood off while the troops from the landing assault craft went ashore. We had the guns trained round just in case. And as they got nearer and nearer the beach we all waited with bated breath, but as they ran up the beach….. nothing. No gun fire, nothing. And they said well at least they kept their word. So we hung around for a while and then with the minesweepers ahead of us we went down into Singapore.
CM: Would you like to tell the story of when the Japanese brought the minefield maps onto the Nelson…
RH: Yes. When we went to Penang they came off in what was a fishing trawler and there was a Japanese Admiral and I think a General, an interpreter, flag officers and they were told to bring the minefields, the charts of the minefields to the Malacca Straits so the whole fleet could get down to Port Swettenham and Port Dixon. And Captain Abbot took them off of this Japanese naval officer and gave them to me and said bring them to the Admiral’s state room, which is where they were going to sign the surrender. The Admiral’s state room is right aft on the stern below decks of course so I let everybody go off ahead of me and I followed on in the rear. To get down I had to go down the companion way. And the maps formed quite a large cylindrical shape (see video..). I was carrying them in my arms but I must have slipped. I don’t remember to this day, I must have slipped on the stairs and I went a cropper. Don’t remember it until I came to and I was sitting on an officer’s bunk in his cabin and I had a big wad of cotton wool and bandages round my head. And I remember saying what’s happened? They said it’s alright, it’s alright. You slipped and had a fall and knocked yourself out. They said they were waiting for a stretcher to take me to sick bay. So I said I could walk there. They asked if I was sure and I said yes. Anyway, I got up to walk and that’s the last thing I remember…. I must have passed out again. The next thing I knew I woke up and I’m on the table in theatre and the doctor is stitching my chin up. They said I might have a bit of amnesia so we are going to keep you in for observation. So we’ve sent down to your mess to tell your mates to bring up your toilet gear and anything you might want. They put me in a bunk and I think I slept there. The next morning there’s a lot of hustle and bustle, people going around straightening beds and mopping floors, that sort of thing. So I thought what on earth is going on here? And all the medical staff appeared. Surgeon Commander, doctors. And the door burst open and in comes the Admiral. Where is he, where is he, he said. So they indicated where I am, so he comes over to me in the cot and says that was a silly bloody thing to do wasn’t it. He said I’m sitting waiting for the charts to the minefields and your outside covering them in a pool of blood. What happened he asked. Well I don’t know sir, I can’t remember. They told me I must have slipped and caught my chin on the flooding valve. He asked if they were taking care of me. I said they were. Have you got everything you want he asked. Yes sir I have. Right he said, you’d best not come back to work until you’re fit. And with that he turned on his heels and off he marched.
CM: How long were you in sick bay for?
RH: Only like… thirty six hours. Anyway, a sick berth attendant had been standing in the background and when they had all disappeared he wandered across, looked at me and said…. who are you? I mean he could see I was only a youngster. He must have thought I was the Admiral’s son or something. Who are you….? I said I’m the Admiral’s messenger!
CM: OK Roy, so you got out of the sick bay and HMS Nelson was sailing down towards Singapore.
RH: Yes, we were going to Singapore aided by the charts making sure we got a safe passage and we must have been one of the earliest ships into Singapore after the surrender. It was a proper shabby place whereas the Singapore that I know now, the Singapore I saw later when I was still serving, was a nice clean place. But the occupation by the Japanese had lowered it a great deal. Principally what we were aiming to do was get the prisoners out of the prison camps in and around Singapore and get them onto ships to go home. There were lots of them in respect of English, Australian, some New Zealanders and Dutch. And the aim was sort of, get them kitted up with clothes cause they didn’t have anything other than loincloths. Feed them, get them clean shaven as most of them had beards. And prepare them for repatriation. I went with a working party up to Changi jail, which was the civil penitentiary which the Japanese had let all the civil prisoners go and used it as a prisoner of war camp. But when I say they used it as a camp, they used it as a base camp because mainly if the prisoners were fit they were sent up country to work on the railway. If they weren’t fit or, they wanted so many people obviously to work in and around Singapore they stayed there, in Singapore itself. And the next thing was the signing of the surrender at Singapore. This was going to be done by Mountbatten himself in the Municipal Buildings, which is right in front of the Padang, and the Padang is where the Singapore Cricket Club play. And the Singapore Cricket Clubhouse which was at one end of the Padang had in fact been the Headquarters of the Japanese Police, the Kenpaitai. And some horrible stories came out there about tortures and one thing and another. Now, I suppose being a boy seaman most of us were fairly up on our rifle drill and it seemed to me that we were all in the surrender ceremony forming the guard. We were out on the Padang and on one side of us we had the Ghurkhas and the other side there was RAF. Then Mountbatten came along, stopped and talked to a few. Then he stood resplendent in his white tunic, trousers and medals and one thing and another. “I am about to sign the surrender on behalf of all of you in the Southeast Asia Command.” Anyway, black marias drew up and out got these Japanese high-ranking officers. An admiral, a general, marching between high-ranking officers, colonels, group captains and our commander on board the Nelson was there, they were there marching either side of them. And I remember as they went up the steps a load of bricks and everything else came over the top. The local populace…. so they had to duck including our people. Anyway, they signed the surrender in there, didn’t see much of that obviously as it was all done inside. When I said he spoke, he spoke to us after.. “I have just signed the surrender on your behalf…..accepted the surrender on behalf of all you people in the Southeast Asia Command”. General Itagaki I think he was. During the course of my stay there and being up at Changi Camp I met an Australian, I can’t remember how I came across him, but he was a corporal in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corp.
CM: And he had been a prisoner in Singapore?
RH: He had been a prisoner in Changi and that’s how I got to meet him. I took him aboard ship. Come aboard ship and I’ll feed you and take you to the canteen and get some stuff. I believe I told the canteen manager I’d bumped into a cousin, I said can we fix him up? Course we can he said, bring him up. Anyway, I remember he got toilet gear, soap, talcum powder, cigarettes, chocolate, packets of biscuits, all that sort of thing. And I used to see him when I went ashore. He would show me parts of Singapore, where they’d worked and all that and that’s when one day we met these Japanese prisoners of war. And they were pulling on tow ropes what I can only describe as the chassis of a London Transport bus. The wheels and the chassis and a seat with the steering wheel sticking up. Nothing else. On top of the chassis they had picks and shovels and brooms and all that sort of thing where they had been made to work. And they were taking them back to the camp I suppose. And Mac suddenly yells out Mikanuri, Mikanuri…. I didn’t know what it was all about.But I subsequently found out that Mikanuri had been a guard in Changi jail, in the sick bay. Now apparently they had a good Japanese officer according to Mac who told his sergeants that they were doctors, they weren’t sick berth attendants or nurses or whatever, they were doctors. And if they said a man was unfit to work then that was it, he was unfit to work. Anyway, I subsequently got the story from Mac that he had said this chap was unfit to work and couldn’t go on the work detail and Mikanuri had said yes, he had to work. Mac said he was the doctor so no work but Mikanuri said he was the guard and the man would work. They stood arguing but then all of a sudden Mikanuri brings his rifle butt up and cracks Mac across the ribs. Partly breaking a couple of ribs and he never forgot this. And when he saw him he went berserk and I thought he was going to get himself into trouble there. They had big Indian guards, Dogras, marching alongside them and standing on the chassis with guns, automatic weapons and that. And Mac tried to tell them with gestures and words that he had been a prisoner of war and that this bloke had been a guard and had abused him and he wanted to get his own back. I’m sure the Indian bloke never understood a word as he just looked at him and smiled. Anyway, he went and faced him as he was marching along. “Mikanuri, you bastard, you remember me”. No said Mikanuri….. “Yes you do you bastard, you do remember. You broke my fucking ribs”. No said Mikanuri. “Well I’ll make you fucking remember” and with that he lashed into him. And of course alongside the streets in Singapore you’ve got monsoon ditches where the rainwater runs away, anyway they tumbled into the rainwater ditch and he was thumping seven bales of shit out of him. Well a couple of bystanders tried to separate them, pulling him off, saying he was going to get himself into trouble. A bloke had taken a photograph of it. The Japanese picked Mikanuri up and laid him on the chassis and he was bleeding where Mac had hit him and they carried on marching down the road. And of course I said to him what was that all about. You were lucky you never got shot. Well I lost my head he said. And then he told me the story. And the bloke who had taken the photograph said will you be around here at this time tomorrow and I’ll let you have a picture of that. So Mac said we’ll have to be here tomorrow at that time. Anyway, I used to see him…. and we actually stayed in Singapore I would think for about six weeks or so. They were gradually getting prisoners out putting them on hospital ships and troop carriers, sending them home. And I remember the Dutch and the English were being sent out round South Africa to make the journey longer to give them time to recuperate. Whereas the Australians and New Zealanders didn’t have far to go. Anyway, comes the time we are going to leave. We’ve been told we are going back to the UK but we’re going via Kilindini in East Africa where we are going to meet up with HMS Howe and we will swap some of the ship’s company. So then I started to get worried, thinking Christ it will just be my luck to get swapped. Anyway, we went to Kilindini and the Howe was there and we swapped some of the ship’s company but I didn’t get swapped. We then came up the Red Sea, through the Med and home and the Howe went east, but in actual fact I think she went to Hongkong then Hawaii across the Pacific and came home that way. She got home a couple to three months after we did. But we headed home. I remember they put about twenty WRENS and nurses and womens services in the Admiral’s day cabin, or suite. They were all pregnant and a lot of them had their husbands out there, they volunteered out there. A couple of them were married to people on the Nelson but they were only allowed to meet at a certain time in the evening. I was a quarterdeck man looking after the Admiral’s whatsnames and I had to make sure that his quarters were ok with these pregnant bloody WRENS.Anyway, we came home and tied up at railway jetty at Portsmouth. I remember we flew a great big paying off pennant, it must have been fifty yards long I think, as we came up…..
CM: So what’s a paying off pennant then Roy?
RH: To say that the ship was paying off, getting rid of the ship’s company, they were going back to their base sort of thing. When you done a commission, not so much during the war, but in peacetime they had paying off pennants. The length of the pennant was dependent on how long you’d been away. We tied up there and I went ashore and I had relatives in Southsea. My mum’s brother, Uncle Ted and his wife Brenda. They lived there so I went round to their house. I don’t know where Ted was, as he was in the navy, but Brenda was there so she said didn’t you think about going up to see your mum and dad. So I said well, I thought about it…. she said they will be disappointed if they know you’ve arrived and you haven’t made any attempt to see them. She said you haven’t got to be back on board until tomorrow have you? I said no, because by that time I was, I’d come from the boys mess deck onto the what’s its name deck, cause I got advanced as an ordinary seaman, at seventeen and a half. And that’s when I lost my job as Admiral’s messenger on the way home I think. So I made up my mind that I would go home, so I went down to Fratton station, bought myself a ticket which was very cheap in those days. It was a Saturday so I thought I’ll get off the bus at The Fountain which was where my dad used to drink, the pub. And he used to love to play dominoes up in the corner. Anyway, I remember getting off the bus and walking in and as I did one of the men looked up and saw me and turned round and said here Fred, that’s your boy! And my dad dropped his bloody dominoes, he couldn’t get across the bar fast enough! O hello son, how are you, are you alright? Have you seen your mother? I said no, I’ve just got off the bus from the station. Well he said she’s babysitting, she was looking after somebody up the road.
CM: How long had it been since you had seen your father then?
RH: That would have been, must have been…..
CM: How long had it taken you to get back?
RH: It had only been twelve months, that’s all, cause I went out November time. I went out in November…
CM: October/November time you sailed out.
RH: That’s right. It must have been December when I came back. The surrender was signed in September, or they surrendered in September, but the actual ceremony didn’t take place until they made all the arrangements. Then we went to Singapore, well Penang then Singapore, we stayed six or eight weeks in Singapore, then to get home from Singapore to Portsmouth….. must have been December. I think we arrived just before Christmas so it was about twelve months.
CM: So you met your dad, did you get to meet your mum?
RH: I did yes, I walked up the road and as I walked up the road I heard my cousin’s voice on the other side of the road, talking to her mum and dad. My cousin Joy. She must have done something and my aunty Molly said O Joy, don’t do something…. and I mimicked her and they came rushing across the road and embraced me. They said when did you get home, so I said this morning, just come home now. I said I’m going to see mum, she’s babysitting. So my aunty Molly said you go onto The Fountain Wally and meet Fred and we’ll go with Roy. So we made a plan that she would knock at the door of this house where she was babysitting and I would hide round the corner and Joy would say alright I’ll close the door aunty Helen, but she’d leave it open and I would walk in. So they’d knocked on the door and she came to the door, Joy said she would close the door, I pushed it open, I took my hat off and threw it! Cor, you should have seen my mother…. O no! How long you been here? So they said they met me walking up the road, Wally’s gone down to the pub with Fred and we came here to see you.
CM: But you could only stay there for one night?
RH: Yeah, I had to go back the next morning. I had to get up early and catch a train, I had to be back on board by nine o’clock I think, that Sunday morning. Then on the Tuesday I was drafted back into barracks because she had gone into Portsmouth and I was a Chatham rating. And there were other Chatham ratings and we were leaving to go back to Chatham, there were ten or a dozen of us on draft at the station.
CM: So what does that mean Roy, you were a Chatham rating but you were in Portsmouth, so you have to return to Chatham?
RH: When you join the navy you are assigned a port division and it depended a lot on where you lived actually. All Londoners were Chatham, people who lived in the West Country were all Devonport and people who lived in the midlands could be Portsmouth or anything. So your official number had a prefix, it had C for Chatham, P for Portsmouth or D, Devonport. Earlier on you’ll note I said my number was CJX which means Chatham and JX was seaman. I was a Chatham seaman. And in that respect Chatham was my port division so naturally I got sent back to Chatham.
CM: And what happened then Roy?
RH: Well I went into Chatham and I was like any draftee coming in from a ship, worked out how long I had been away, how long since I’d had any leave and I did the routine, went to the pay office, got some money, drew some ration coupons and went on leave.
CM: OK. How long for?
RH: I can’t remember…..
CM: When you joined the navy though, did you sign up for a minimum term or was it just for the duration of the war or what?
RH: When you join as a boy seaman you sign on for, in those days, for twelve years from the age of eighteen. So anything you do before then doesn’t count. Your time starts when you’re eighteen. So anyone who’s on a twelve year engagement actually leaves the navy the day before his thirtieth birthday. If you sign on to do twentytwo you used to leave the day before your fortieth birthday and that’s when you got a pension. So as I say, any of us who joined during the war, boy seamen, we were navy, we just had to soldier on, or sailor on!
CM: But going back to Singapore and that, I mean, apart from your mate having a go at the Japanese guard that he’d met, did you see much in the way of the Japanese being attacked or were they too well protected by the Indians?
RH: They used to pass streets where….. Singapore is very much a multi-racial place. You got Indians, Chinese, Malays, Tamals, Thais…. and they live in cramped quarters as you can imagine with all these signs and paintings and lights. Now when they pass a turning which was a living neighbourhood they sometimes had these gangs of people descending on them with batons and sticks and obviously they didn’t want to get caught by the guards so they were in and out in a flash. But they would do as much harm to them as they could in a short space of time. But I actually saw a Japanese officer commit hari kari in Changi. Nobody interrupted him but because they became the captured obviously when surrender came and this bloke came out dressed in robes and he knelt down. He got a bowl of some kind as far as I remember, whether it was drink or food…. and he was bowing, then he picked up this knife or dagger, stuck it underneath his robes,( “then pulled it across his body” see video for imagery) like that, he just bled then toppled over. And there was, though I never saw it, as Mac had told me, some Japanese officers had a sake party, which is their whisky, and they had managed to get hold of, or secrete, hand grenades, and they took the pins out and threw them at each other and blew themselves up. There were three or four of them got killed doing that. But there were a lot of women moved into Changi too, I remember, because what we principally did when we went in there we took loads of bales of clothes. And they were all done up in, obviously been prepared well ahead, and there was shirts and shorts and vests, boots, underwear, towels andthey were issued to them to wear. And then the women set up these distribution centres and they also set up field kitchens for cooking food and that, preparing food. But they had to be careful about what they fed them….
CM: Because they hadn’t had much to eat for the previous four years……?
RH: They were all suffering from malnutrition, beri beri, malaria…. yeah, they were in a bad way, a lot of them, in a bad way.
CM: OK, I think on that note we’ll finish the interview. Thank you very much Sir!