“We Were Sent … to Stop Illegal Immigrants”: HMS Galatea Visits the Middle East
HMS Galatea was one of the four light cruisers of the Arethusa class built between 1934 and 1936. These cruisers were at times criticized for carrying only six 6-inch guns, but their advocates reasoned that six guns would be more than adequate against any enemy commerce raider that they could be expected to catch attempting to disrupt the sea lanes.
The Royal Navy maintained a heavy presence in the Mediterranean even well before the outbreak of war. The Mediterranean Fleet was stationed at Malta which, with its ample natural harbor and well developed shipyard infrastructure, was well suited for its role as a naval base. The importance of the Suez Canal kept Royal Navy ships busy showing the flag to all and any who might consider challenging British control of the seas from Gibraltar to Suez. Turmoil in the Middle East was as prevalent in the late 1930s as it is today. When HMS Galatea made a port call at Haifa in 1938, not only had London’s promise of independence to the British Mandated Territory of Palestine yet to be fulfilled, but a different British promise, to support a Jewish homeland in that very territory, put the Arabs in revolt against British rule. Petty Officer Ronald Palmer remembered the times and a shore excursion while Galatea was anchored at Haifa.
We were sent to the eastern end of the Mediterranean to stop illegal (Jewish) immigrants from entering (the British Mandated Territory) … This meant stopping innumerable ships and searching them, also scouring the sea for small craft, no easy job and lots of sea time. (We went) to Haifa for a rest on one occasion and we could not roam the town freely because of the troubles … Throughout Palestine were outposts of the Palestinian Police, a body of very tough British men who daily took their lives in their own hands. On average one of them was killed each day.
Galatea was the flagship of the destroyers and therefore carried an Admiral and his staff. This Admiral was a great friend of the man in charge of the Palestine Police and through him arranged a wonderful excursion for some 200 of the ship’s company. When notice of this journey was posted on the notice board, we realized that there might be some danger. A Palestine Policeman would be in each of the coaches (buses). Also one in ten of the sailors had to be fully armed with rifle and ammunition. Reaching and embarking the coaches we found we would have an escort of three armored cars, two in front and one in the rear. The first of these kept several hundred yards in front of the convoy, searching for any signs of land mines or other dangers. We did pass the shot riddled remains of a motor car at one place. 7.
The tour went off without incident as the men were taken to the village of Nain where Jesus performed the miracle of raising the widow’s son, and then to Nazareth for a visit to the Churches of the Annunciation and St. Joseph. The sailors also enjoyed stops at Cana where Jesus turned water to wine, the Mount of the Beatitudes, and the Sea of Galilee.
“Showing the Flag”: HMS Ajax in the Mediterranean and Caribbean
By 1930, the Royal Navy was planning to have a total of 70 cruisers with which to ensure that Britain’s vital sea lanes could be kept open in the face of any maritime threat. Cruisers, well-armed and capable of high speeds and long ranges, were designed to operate independently and far from home to either protect friendly seaborne commerce or to disrupt or destroy that of enemy nations. In peacetime they would often visit far flung ports and “show the flag” to exhibit the friendship, good will, and power of Britain. During times of war, they would be vulnerable to the heavy guns of battleships, but a cruiser could rely on its greater speed and maneuverability for escape in the event of an attack by such powerful foes. As 1939 approached, the Royal Navy could count on a total of 63 cruisers. Two-thirds of them were 20 years or less in age. 19 additional cruisers were under construction.1.
The Leander class light cruiser HMS Ajax displaced about 7,000 tons and was armed with a main battery of eight 6-inch guns in four twin turrets, four 4-inch guns, a number of small caliber automatic weapons for air defense, and two sets torpedo tubes. The ship’s original antiaircraft battery would have been woefully inadequate during the war and was to be repeatedly updated as time and resources permitted throughout the years of conflict.
Ajax was assigned to the 8th Cruiser Squadron stationed at Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda 2. that had been built by convict labor in the early 19th Century. The pre-war years provided the crew with an interesting variety of experiences that included a brief diversion to the Mediterranean Sea during the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935. Italy, under Mussolini, was bent on taking her place among the world’s colonial powers and had invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia). While neither the French nor the British felt that the challenge to their interests in Africa or the eastern Mediterranean was grave enough to warrant the risk of antagonizing Italy (or her fascist supporter, Germany), they nonetheless felt compelled to at least make a show of naval force in the region.
Stoker Charles Maggs joined the Navy in 1931 to escape the grind of unemployment then rampant across England. He was 22 when Ajax was detached from Bermuda to Gibraltar in 1935. From the captain on down, nobody aboard knew why they were headed to the Mediterranean. Maggs recalled that the captain gathered the crew and announced that he was “ignorant” of their destination and mission. The ship was accompanied by three other cruisers, two battlecruisers, and many destroyers as she made her way to Malta, Alexandria, and finally Haifa. She helped keep watch on the Suez Canal over a period of relatively relaxed days during which the crew watched as Italian troop transports paraded by on their way to Abyssinia. Because Maggs spoke fluent French, he was given the additional duty of interpreting between the crews of Ajax and a French destroyer as they participated in athletic competitions and social events. The various ships’ crews learned what they could about the purpose of their presence through casual conversations with men from other ships. Britain’s token protest of Italian transgressions alarmed no one, but the crew of Ajax enjoyed a tranquil Mediterranean cruise, and whatever international crisis there might have been, passed quietly for the men of the Royal Navy. 3.
Back in the Caribbean, Ajax was called to Kingston, Jamaica in 1938 to assist with riot control. The global depression had contributed to the discontentment of the local labor force. The workers were mostly unskilled agriculture laborers, and as the economic crisis deepened so did their frustrations. Civil unrest was brewing when crewmen from the cruiser were sent ashore to lend support to the police at Kingston and at Montego Bay.
Seaman Eric Smith had just turned 18 in 1938 when Ajax received the urgent call from the governor of Jamaica for assistance in containing unruly mobs that were too large for local law enforcement to handle. There was looting and property damage in Kingston. A platoon of marines armed with rifles and another of sailors from Ajax were landed in the city to confront one particularly large and vociferous crowd. Seaman Smith remembered that, except for one entrenching tool handle per man, the platoon of sailors was unarmed. He was very nervous as he faced a crowd of about 2,000 locals who were overturning trams and wrecking nearby property. He did not think that he or his fellow sailors, with their sticks in hand, would be much of a match for the rampaging mob. Only the platoon leader was armed. He fired a round or two from his revolver into the air. Much to the relief of the platoon of Ajax sailors, the crowd suddenly and quietly dispersed.
Smith was sympathetic with the locals. He had watched from the ship as laborers lined up at the docks to load banana boats. The need for work was such that the line of men regularly extended beyond the waterfront and into the town. Each man would be given a tally sheet that was marked for every stalk of bananas he carried into the ship’s hold. After dropping his load, a laborer would trudge back to the end of the line. Smith calculated that at a penny per stalk, a man spending 12 hours waiting in line to load bananas could earn about a shilling a day. His own comfort, while in Jamaica was not lacking however. He was assigned to protect the ship’s locally hired refuse scow operator from assault or theft by the host of begrudging boat owners clustered nearby. In appreciation, the scow’s owner would give Smith fresh fruit that included coconuts, bananas, and mangoes. All were welcomed supplements to his shipboard diet. 4.
January 1939 found the cruiser on a port call at Valparaiso, Chile when large-scale disaster in the form of an earthquake measuring over 8.0 on the Richter scale struck. The number of fatalities was estimated to exceed 30,000. The ship’s crew turned out to assist as best they could.
At the moment the earthquake struck, Stoker Maggs was ashore having dinner with friends. He noticed that the wine in his glass was sloshing around. He was thinking that Chilean wine must be a very strong variety when one of his dinner companions shouted, terremoto! – Spanish for earthquake. He hurried back to his ship. The crew was organized into work and rescue parties. Maggs remembered that after working for several days in the summer heat of the Southern Hemisphere he had to wear a respirator to staunch the odor of decaying corpses that he was helping to dig from ruined buildings. Afterwards, as a sign of appreciation, the Chilean Navy commissioned a commemorative plaque for the ship, but Ajax sailed before it could be presented. Ajax never returned again to Chile. Years later, however, Maggs attended a British veteran’s reunion to which he invited the Chilean ambassador. The story of the ship’s assistance and the lost plaque was told, and the ambassador promised to look into it. Shortly afterward, the plaque was delivered and it has since been placed aboard each successive Royal Navy ship to be named Ajax. The Municipality of Concepción also issued commemorative medals to the crews of Ajax and the heavy cruiser Exeter for their earthquake assistance. The two ships were further honored when a city street was named for each of them. 5.
After a brief return to Bermuda, Ajax was sent to join the South American Division based in the Falkland Islands. Among the cruiser’s crew was Samuel Shale who had left school at 14 to work as a butcher’s boy before joining the Royal Marines at age 17. He felt that, by entering the service, he would be able to contribute financially to his family. He was soon able to send two shillings per week home to his mother. He eventually made, as planned from the outset, a full career of the service in order to earn a pension and enjoy long-term financial security.
In late August, Ajax had a port call to Rio de Janeiro cut short as war grew imminent. The ship landed all non-essential equipment and accoutrements and the crew worked extensively to reach full operational readiness. The 6-inch gun crews drilled long and often. Shale remembered the keen competition between the four turrets to earn bragging rights for being the fastest in a 10-shell rapid fire competition. Ammunition and powder charges were sent up to each turret from first, the magazine, and then the handling room. The gun breech would be opened and the loader would pick up a shell that weighed about 112 pounds to place in position for the rammer to push into the gun by hand. The powder bag that weighed about 13-1/2 to 14-1/2 pounds was hand placed behind the projectile, a firing tube was inserted, the breech was closed, and a warning bell sounded, ”ding-ding.” Both guns of a turret fired simultaneously and the process was repeated. Fingers got smashed, toes and ankles got broken, and arms and legs were mangled but, according to Shale, “it was all a part of the business.” Shale started out as the rammer in Marine manned X turret, but was disappointed that his gun was not the ship’s fastest. Shale convinced a fellow Marine on the gun, the loader, to trade places in order to take advantage of Shale’s greater physical strength. Within a week X turret had become the ship’s fastest. 6.
Ajax was operating in a trade defense role in the South Atlantic when war was officially declared between England and Germany in September 1939. The cruiser immediately intercepted two German merchant ships in the waters around the River Plate region. The German vessels were scuttled.
“I Was Too Young and Green to Have Charge of Much of Anything”: A Brief Meeting Between HMS Renown and HMS Hood
At the start of the 20th Century the world’s great naval powers held firmly to the doctrine of sea control that would be gained by means of decisive combat. The heavy guns mounted aboard the battleships of opposing fleets that could shoot the fastest and the farthest with the greatest accuracy would rule the day for the nation that would, as a consequence, rule the seas. The lesser powers that could not hope to challenge the larger nations through large scale combat resorted to alternative means by which to stake their claim to the oceans. They would use smaller, more affordable warships such as fast cruisers that could range the expanses of the oceans to raid merchant shipping and disrupt the sea lanes of commerce ahead of the appearance of an enemy’s relatively slow battle fleet.
The British response to the challenges presented by the cruisers and raiders of any potential adversary was to build large, fast, and heavily armed ships that could fully neutralize them: battlecruisers.
During the World War I naval Battle of Jutland between Germany and Great Britain, however, the Royal Navy’s battlecruisers were shown to have serious flaws when three of them were catastrophically sunk while a fourth barely escaped a similar fate. Their light armor over the decks made the British ships vulnerable to plunging fire in which shells dropping from high arcs could penetrate spaces where ammunition was stored.
HMS Renown commissioned in late 1916 but, following criticism by the very prominent Admiral John Jellicoe about the vulnerabilities of battlecruisers that were exposed at Jutland, 9. Renown was retrofitted with additional armor plate. The ship would be regularly updated and, from 1936 – 1939, she was completely reconstructed. Frequent trips to the yard by both Renown and sister Repulse in the interwar years led to them being derisively referred to as, “Refit” and “Repair,” respectively. 10.
John Lang, son of a retired civil servant, entered the Royal Navy as a teen aged midshipman by way of Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. He studied a heavy curriculum of math and science designed to prepare young men for careers as naval officers. In addition to general studies, the college provided instruction in seamanship. Lang “absolutely loved” his time as a student there. During 1934 he was aboard the training cruiser Frobisher for two training cruises; the first of which took him to Northern Europe and Scandinavia, and the second of which brought him to the Mediterranean.
Lang described his time aboard the cruiser as “absolute bliss” as he felt that, even when spending a lot of time scrubbing decks, he was a “real sailor.” His studies of navigation, seamanship, and engineering continued during his eight months aboard the training cruiser. He went to Renown in 1935 as a midshipman. He recalled an incident between his ship and battlecruiser Hood that took place shortly after he reported aboard Renown.
… very soon after sailing for the spring cruise we joined up with the “Mighty Hood.” There were always two ships at sea from the battlecruiser squadron, the third one which was the Repulse was refitting. On the way out to Gib for our part of the exercises we joined up with Hood off Portsmouth and we were going down the Portuguese coast for an exercise with the two ships some ten to twelve miles apart … and at the end of the exercise, about lunchtime, the two ships were instructed to close … and we proceeded to close … I was Assistant Midshipman of the Watch (and on the bridge)… too young and green to have the charge of (much of anything) by myself, and I remember that the two ships got closer and closer and closer. And as we were forming up the captain was on the bridge with the navigating officer and his anxiety was very clear, in his voice, saying, “Navigating Officer, we’re getting very close,” and the Navigating Officer said, “Oh, yes. It’s quite alright. The Hood will turn to the course and we will form up astern of her.” Well, what didn’t happen was the Hood didn’t turn to the course … but carried on and the two ships bumped our bow into her stern. I remember … watching and first of all, feeling the effect of the engines of Renown … going emergency full speed astern … and the whole mast absolutely shaking and the vibration. On the foc’sl below, as it was the lunch hour, a lot of the sailors had been to the head, the toilets, which were always in the fore part of the ship as they had been in Nelson’s time, and you could see them all piling up the ladder of the foc’sl hatch and pulling their trousers up. 11.
When war began, Renown was sent to patrol the south Atlantic for German raiders – especially the large armored cruiser Graf Spee. The German ship was more powerful than any other ship type of the day except for a battlecruiser or a battleship and was especially feared by the Admiralty who believed her fully capable of singlehandedly destroying British shipping.
“Training … Made a Man of Me”: HMS Warspite Promotes Neutrality During the Spanish Civil War
Designed in 1912 and completed in 1915, HMS Warspite, a battleship of the Queen Elizabeth class earned her first battle honor for her role in one of history’s most memorable fleet actions: the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Warspite received 13 major caliber shell hits from ships of the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland and suffered enough damage to have to be ordered out of the battle line for her own safety. She was extensively modernized from 1935 to1937 and, despite her age, she would see extensive World War II service in the Arctic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and English Channel.
George Nye and his family lived and worked in India. The family was back in England for a visit when it was decided that young George should remain with an aunt to continue schooling while his parents returned to India. Nye, 16 at the time, did not want to do that, so he hopped on the back of a friend’s motorbike to go to Chatham where he joined the Navy as a boy seaman. He trained at HMS St. Vincent which took some getting used to for him as, after being accustomed to a “soft life in India,” life as a Royal Navy boy trainee was “very harsh.” He most clearly recalled suffering the punishment of being hit with the flail-like stonnachie, climbing the mast, and having to do his own laundry. At the end of his first month he asked, as was allowed, to be released, but was dissuaded from doing so although three classmates did accept their releases. In the end, Nye was glad that he persevered because the training, as so many others would attest, “made a man of me” and most likely helped him survive the war. He joined Warspite in 1937.
Nye’s first duty aboard the battleship occurred while she was docked at Barcelona in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Warspite was in Spain to promote general European neutrality in hopes of limiting the scope of what was an extremely vicious war, and to protect or evacuate British citizens endangered by the fighting. Although Nye did not understand the conflict at the time, it was very evident to him that the civilian population was under great pressure to just get by on a day to day basis. He drew guard duty on dockside trash bins filled with the ship’s food scraps and, armed with a rifle and bayonet, was supposed to prevent civilians from scavenging through them. He found the task distasteful as visibly suffering women and children, driven by hunger, clambered to the bins and fought against one another over every scrap and morsel. Unable to bear what he was seeing, Nye turned his back.
Numerous shipmates, motivated by political beliefs that made them sympathetic to Spain’s liberal Republicans in their fight against the Nationalists who were supporters of fascism, deserted the ship to join in the struggle. Nye, originally apolitical, was only later able to understand the fervor of those caught up in anti-fascist movements at home and even aboard his ship. Later, at Gibraltar, Nye had the opportunity to board and tour the German battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst that were anchored there. The German ships, like Warspite, were in the region to encourage neutrality during Spain’s war. Despite the fact that they would be deadly enemies barely a year later, Nye found the German sailors to be cordial and congenial hosts with whom he enjoyed conversing and sharing a smoke.
Life aboard a World War I-era battleship was not physically comfortable. With no air conditioning, the crew was, according to Nye, “jammed together like cattle” in the mess decks where they slept, ate, and tried to relax when off duty. The food was not memorable but, at least, it was plentiful, and Nye recalled that it was generally “not bad.” Compared to the destroyer on which he would later serve, however, life aboard Warspite was actually good. Nye remembered that the movement of the smaller ship at sea often made it difficult or even impossible to eat one’s meals or to accomplish routine tasks. Seasickness aboard a small ship like a destroyer often reduced the ship’s efficiency drastically. There was at least one case of a destroyer sailor who was so incapacitated by seasickness that he had to be landed after which he transferred to the Army.
In the fall of 1939, Warspite was heading to Naples for a port call when she was ordered back to Malta as war approached. The ship then transferred to Alexandria along with the rest of the Mediterranean Fleet when the British decided that Malta, just 50 miles south of Sicily, would be impossible to defend. The day on which war was declared against Germany Nye went ashore as soon as he was off duty and, with more than a few shipmates, got “thoroughly plastered.” They were nervous and more than a little afraid because they simply did not know what the war would mean for them. Nye was especially concerned by memories of his father’s World War I experiences, but he remained confident that the Royal Navy would be able to handle the Germans at sea if only because the British had more ships. Not long following Italy’s June 1940 entry into the war, stories like the one that told of Italian battleship sailors jumping overboard at the mere sight of British warships began to circulate among Royal Navy sailors. Whether they were true or not, such accounts gave Nye and many of his shipmates the idea that the Italian fleet bore an unflattering “big yellow streak.” Warspite’s sailors were realistic enough, however, to know that there would be times when the Italians, with their modern and well-built ships, would need to be taken seriously.8.
“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 seve 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.