All excerpts on this site but one are abridged versions of original full-length chapters from “The Sea Takes No Prisoners.”
“Do You Hear There? Prepare for War With All Haste”: Life Aboard HMS Hood
If asked to name the most famous naval ship of World War II many would likely say, HMS Hood of the Royal Navy. Throughout the interwar years Hood was the symbol of the Royal Navy’s power and prestige. Built by John Brown & Company of Clydebank, Scotland, she was affectionately called “Britain’s Biggest Bullshittingest Bastard Built By Brown.” After her tragic encounter with the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Strait Hood would become a household name in 1941.
Hood was completed in 1920 with improvements based on lessons learned from the Royal Navy’s battlecruiser losses incurred during the Battle of Jutland. The improvements included the strengthening of internal framing and the addition of heavier armor. At the time of her completion Hood’s armor was only slightly lighter than that of the US Navy’s USS Arizona, built at approximately the same time, and destroyed at Pearl Harbor when a Japanese bomb penetrated a forward magazine.
Hood was a handsome vessel and, given Britain’s long tradition of maritime excellence, she inspired many young men who saw her to seek seaborne adventures in far off places through enlistment. Among those who also entered service aboard Hood at a tender age was Jim Taylor who reported on board in 1939, just three months shy of his 17th birthday. He was a boy first class who would gain eligibility for promotion to ordinary seaman when he turned 18. He had started as a 13 year old who went to the naval training establishment at Holbrook as a way to help out with his family. His father had died the previous year and left Jim’s mother with five children to care for. The school, founded for the orphaned children of seafarers, offered a maritime-based curriculum and required future entry into the sea services. Young Taylor enjoyed the discipline and training that he got at Holbrook and, two years later, as a boy second class, he moved on to the Royal Navy training establishment ashore at Gosport, HMS St. Vincent, where he continued to learn, grow, and thrive.
Life aboard Hood was challenging but not unpleasant for Taylor who remembered being well looked after. One big difference between life ashore and that aboard ship according to Taylor,
…was that we were allowed to smoke – something which had been absolutely forbidden until now. Although I was now in “man’s service,” life was not nearly as hectic for me as it had been in the past … days became much more relaxed and easy … A big difference in the daily routine was that every morning first thing – before 7:00 AM – we boys (20 of whom transferred to Hood with Taylor) had to scrub the decks. The ship’s company in charge had sea boots but we boys were barefooted. A hose pipe was basically thrown over the side of the ship and sea water pumped over the decks until it was nearly ankle deep. The water was dark and very cold and as it washed into the scuppers it got colder still. Eventually one was left on a damp deck colder than you could imagine. If your toes were knocked, as they frequently were, they were too cold to bleed. This deck washing was probably my pet hate in the Navy …
… We were studying and we had a schoolroom aboard. We had two hour’s schooling and about an hour’s homework each day. A typical day on board (included activities like) rise and shine at 7:00 AM, lashes up and stow hammocks, wash, breakfast, and clean the mess decks. Then (it was) hand’s to quarters, clean guns, and assemble at one’s part of the ship to be detailed off for (assigned to) one of 101 jobs. The boys were not allowed to smoke except at specified times, though I think that the regimen was not so strict for the men. On a lot of occasions the whole ship’s company performed “evolutions” (shipboard tasks or drills) such as streaming the paravanes (mine countermeasure devices towed overboard) or collision mats – this was all very hard work. After dinner we had school, then more jobs and exercises … Whilst I was in Hood my action station was in the aloft director.
This was right atop the foremast above the spotting top. What a journey it was to get up there. Normally one would have to climb up the ladders on the outside of the mast struts. These could get very hot indeed from the gasses coming from the funnels. On one occasion I remember the hood of my duffel coat blew down off my head and the back of my neck was singed. Of course, when apart from the risk of burning there was the problem of staying on the ladder. Anyone who served in Hood will tell you how the ship pitched and rolled. I can testify to how bad it was when you were towards the top of the mast. Sometimes I would make my way up the inside of the mast struts. There were numerous electrical cables, wires, and junction boxes in there as well as the internal structure of the mast to get around. Having arrived at the spotting top I had to get through its roof to finally arrive at my action station. 12.
Dick Turner was another youngster, although old enough to have been rated above the rank of boy, to serve in Hood in the 1930s. Unlike Taylor, his station was not high above Hood’s decks, but deep below them, in the engineering spaces. Turner fulfilled his boyhood dream of joining the navy once he turned 18 and, after his initial training and a subsequent eight-week program in which he learned what he would need to know about the ship’s propulsive machinery, he arrived aboard Hood in September 1936. His descriptions provide a detailed view of his duties, the nature of Hood’s engineering spaces, and certain aspects of an enlisted sailor’s life on board in general.
Normally my day station was in Hood’s middle engine room. She had three engine rooms in all. As a junior stoker my duties usually involved tending various machines and making sure that they were working correctly. The machines included: dynamos that were used to generate electricity throughout the ship, carbon dioxide machinery which was used for making ice and cooling the ship’s (ammunition) magazines, evaporators which were used for making fresh water from sea water … (and) many hydraulic systems … Hood had 24 boilers arranged in four groups of six boilers each. The boilers were normally cleaned in a 21-day cycle. There was a special team for this work. One set of six boilers would be closed down for maintenance and the ship would operate on the other three sets if we were at sea. The normal “economical cruising speed” (for preservation of fuel) was 12 knots and Hood would make this speed on three sets of boilers without any difficulty. Progression from stoker 2 to stoker 1 came through training and familiarity with the various machines. Your divisional officer would occasionally grade you in a book that formed part of your records. The grades ran “Superior,” “Very Good,” “Good,” “Satisfactory,” and “Unsatisfactory.” I was fortunate enough to be graded “Superior” throughout my time in the Navy. To progress to stoker 1 you had to take a test although I cannot recall anyone ever failing it … Being such a large ship it was impossible to mix socially with many of the crew so you found yourself with a small group of close friends … In the quieter off duty moments in Hood I used to try my hand at swinging Indian clubs on the boat deck. I also remember many swimming races taking place alongside the ship. I was fortunate enough to get myself on the crew of one of the cutters, and we used to compete in the three-mile races. The less formal races were arranged between groups within Hood. A crew of stokers would take on a crew of seamen or marines. More serious races were between Hood and other ships. I never managed to get myself onto an inter-ship team, though. 13.
Albert Pitman was born in Portsmouth. His father died when he was just one year old so he, his two brothers, and a sister were raised by his mother alone. The family was given 15 shillings per week in parish relief. Continued assistance was contingent upon the widow’s good behavior. She earned some extra money through charring, or taking in laundry. Pitman enrolled in the Portsmouth Junior Technical School when he was 12 where he studied math, mechanics, chemistry, and physics. He learned mechanical drawing and worked in metal and woodworking shops as well. A good student, he used what he had learned to pass the Navy’s Artificer Apprentice exam at just 15. His keen intellect allowed him to become an Ordnance Artificer by the time he reported aboard Hood in January 1939.
Pleased to be aboard Hood as a member of the ship’s gunnery department, Pitman recalled that she was a “marvelous looking ship,” and he felt a great sense of pride in being a member of her crew. Only 17, Pitman was appreciative that the chief ordnance artificer (OA) to whom he was responsible took some care in his personal welfare. He was grateful for the chief’s subtle way of discouraging him from visiting brothels by instructing him and another young and new crewman to go to one on an evening when the ship was anchored at Gibraltar. Pitman was surprised, but complied and carefully followed the chief’s instructions to pick a brothel that had a bar, select the girl that he thought he would most enjoy being with, but to refrain from meeting her until he had taken several drinks and observed her for a while. Before long, Pitman watched the very pretty and charming girl he had selected go about her business of going up the stairs and coming back down again with sailor after sailor. The longer she did so, the less appealing she became. He left the place with a much deeper sense of appreciation and respect for his chief and without having done any more than to buy a few drinks.
Pitman’s chief OA was considerably more lax when it came to alcohol. The first drink served to Pitman aboard Hood was something that the youngster later remembered as a “jolly good gin” that he assumed had been somehow snatched from the ward room. It turned out to be a concoction of spirits commonly found in the workshops and equipment of the gunnery department. Many of the men in his department enjoyed the tasty, if unhealthy, beverage that served as a good supplement to the allocated rum ration. This daily tot took place at about 11 o’clock each day on Hood when a large kettle filled with rum would be brought to a sailor’s mess where the sailor appointed as mess president would measure and pour out an eighth of a pint per man. Lower ratings had their ration cut with water, but chiefs and petty officers were allowed to take theirs neat. It was, according to Pitman, about 120 proof. He added that he thought it was “a quite a lot of rum” and that “about a half of us (would be) plastered by lunch time.” Pitman also recalled that there was a general acceptance and tolerance of drinking on the part of the crew whenever the ship was in port. He and his shipmates particularly enjoyed the bars in Spain just across the border from Gibraltar because, for a mere four pence, they could get a schooner of Sherry and all the bread and meat they could care to eat. However inebriated a man might be, if he were able to walk up the gangway and properly salute the quarter deck and walk aft, he was allowed back aboard without question. If a man needed to be carried aboard, he would be placed into one of the cells in the ship’s brig “for his own safety” until the following morning and nothing further would be said about it.14.
On 02 September 1939, Pitman was dressed in his best whites as he stood on deck waiting for a liberty boat to take him and some friends ashore to Invergordon, Scotland. There was a sudden interruption over the loud speaker:
… Do you hear, there? … All leave is cancelled … the following signal has been received from the Admiralty … Prepare for war with all haste. The ship will proceed to Scapa Flow.
Hood steamed all night towards Scapa, and Pitman spent the time fusing shells stored in the ready room. There were AP, or armor piercing fuses, that delayed detonation until the shell had time to penetrate into a target’s interior, and instant fuses which allowed for detonation and the creation of shrapnel as soon as a shell hit. They also got the cordite ready to be lifted to the turrets from the magazines and checked and rechecked the readiness of the guns. 15.
Notes available on request