“An End to Six Years of War”
On 16 August 1945 Vice-Admiral Bernard Rawlings, second in command of the British Pacific Fleet, issued an important message from his flagship, HMS King George V. The same message was broadcast to all British and American ships of the BPF and US Navy Third Fleet.
The surrender of the Japanese Empire brings to an end six years of achievement in war unsurpassed in the long history and high tradition of the Royal Navy. The phase of naval warfare that came to an end three months ago enriched the record of British sea power by such epic actions and campaigns as the Battle of the Atlantic, the domination of the Mediterranean, the maintenance of the Russian supply lines, and the great combined operations of 1943 and 1944. The worldwide story is completed by the inspired work by sea and air of the British Pacific Fleet and the East Indies Fleet. The Board are deeply conscious of the difficulty and novelty of the problems facing the British Pacific Fleet, the patience and skill with which they were overcome, and the great contribution in offensive power made by the Task Force operating with our American Allies. No less memorable is the work of the East Indies Fleet in the protection of India and Ceylon and in operational support of the Burma campaign. At this moment our eyes are turned to the Far East and it is fitting to recall in remembrance those who gave their lives in the days of disaster of 1941 and 1942. To their relatives and to the relatives of all officers and men of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines and of the Naval Forces of the Commonwealth and Empire and to all in Admiralty service who have paid the full price of victory, the Board extend their profound sympathy. 1.
“The Crew Lined the Guardrails to Cheer the Prisoners of War”
In the closing days of August, KGV and other British and American ships dropped anchor in Sagami Wan, the sheltered body of water just outside of Tokyo Bay. Final diplomatic and military preparations were being made for the formal surrender ceremony. All American and British aircraft carriers remaining at sea were prepared to launch attack aircraft in the event of any Japanese treachery. Shore parties from British ships landed in Japan in order to assist with just liberated POWs. Allied military personnel also entered the major Japanese naval base at nearby Yokosuka for the purpose of taking it over.
Able Seaman Hubert Hancox remembered the last days of the war aboard KGV.
Our ship provided a platoon ready for landing parties … after several days on an American landing type ship we went ashore to occupy Yokosuka naval base, quite near Mount Fujiyama, a glorious sight from Tokyo Bay where KGV was then anchored for several weeks. The landing party returned to the ship after a week or so and the crew often lined the guard rails to cheer the (aircraft) carriers loaded with the released British and Australian prisoners of war …2.
Once it was clear that Japan had, indeed, surrendered, ship’s cook Victor Stamp, formerly of HMS Ramillies, was present to assist with the care for recently released British prisoners at Hong Kong.
I’ll never, ever forget that sight; skin and bone, skin and bone. We had to feed them with a teaspoon of consome soup, otherwise you would kill them … it was made up of meat bones and vegetables and all it was strained through a cloth. We didn’t dare give them anything solid, just a teaspoon.3.
Following a report he had received about the Japanese POW camps in Indonesia, Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Theater, ordered the cruiser HMS Cumberland to steam from Singapore to Java. The ship carried key members of the Recovery of Allied Prisoners and Internees (RAWPI) staff. They arrived in Batavia in mid-September 1945. The RAWPI personnel were under instructions to find and meet with allied prisoners in the camps who might be able to work on the post-war administration of Indonesia. Cumberland, her officers, and crew were also made available to personnel of the South East Asia Command. The latter organization was expecting to disarm and evacuate Japanese military forces in Java, take care of Allied POWs, and prepare to re-establish Dutch colonial control to the area.
Some of Cumberland’s crew were to assist in caring for thousands prisoners who had been interred since the Japanese takeover of Java some three and a half years earlier. There were military and civilian camps throughout Java. By the war’s end, there were several camps in or near Batavia that held a combined total of about 18,000 women and children along with about 20,000 men and boys. According to Marine Musician Gus Guthrie,
(A)t Batavia, (we were) relieving the prisoner of war camp.There were two camps; female and male and mainly all the inmates were Dutch. There were a number of crew, Australians, from HMAS Sydney 4. and … (there) was an Englishman … that my brother knew. He had beriberi of the head 5. (and seeing that) was a rather un-nerving experience. The ladies didn’t appear to be too bad and, apparently, they permitted a bit of liaison between the Dutch men and women … so much so, that there were some very young babies in the camp. We went to entertain them and got all the children to march around with us … They showed us (around the camp) and it was quite difficult to imagine how they could live under those circumstances. Food was obviously of major concern and, in the male area of the prison, a chap was showing us around and he said, ‘Have you noticed that there’s no vegetation here? Well, the first sign of vegetation at all and, pfft!, it’s off’ … it would be eaten in a very short time; whether it was raw, or cooked, or fried, or boiled.6.
Guthrie recalled meeting Lady Edwina Mountbatten as she toured the prison camps. He stated that she was very much interested in seeing every corner of the camps and that she asked endless questions. She was keenly interested to know what life had been like in them. What Guthrie did not know, was that Lady Mountbatten would be instrumental in helping to expedite the relief of the liberated prisoners. She would also dine with a very important British officer and former prisoner who had just been liberated from one of the camps.
The officer with whom Lady Mountbatten dined aboard Cumberland was an old-school adventurer and British Army officer. He had intimate knowledge of the history, social climate, and political feelings in Indonesia. He told her that the Indonesians were not in the least bit interested in seeing European Colonial rule restored once the Japanese had been sent away. Lady Mountbatten reported the information to Lord Mountbatten in Singapore. Mountbatten was thus able to see that British support for their Dutch allies against the already risen tide of Indonesian nationalism would be contrary to Britain’s long-term interests. Meetings aboard Cumberland between Japanese, British, and Dutch principals led to a flurry of messages to and from Singapore. Mountbatten arrived at the decision that the final missions remaining to Britain in Indonesia were those of disarming the remaining Japanese forces and the evacuation of Allied POWs and internees. All other matters pertinent to Indonesia were to be left to the Dutch. The British stance was communicated to the Dutch at the end of September. Cumberland weighed anchor soon afterward, and she was home by November. 7.
“A Lot of People Were Drunk”– A V-J Day Celebration
Kenneth Waterson was a telegraphist aboard the destroyer HMS Relentless anchored in Trincomalee Harbor when word was received that Japan had quit and the World War was finally and completely over.
That night Trincomalee had its celebrations. There were rocket displays (for which ships fired off what would normally distress flares), jumping jacks (a type of pyrotechnic) and concerts … Ships were dressed, every color of flag was flown. There were lots of nationalities. The alphabet went down the USA (America) and USSR (Russia), the latter flew the hammer and sickle. All the flags were hauled down at sunset but were then immediately re-hoisted. The dark night showed up illuminated “V”s (for “Victory”) made up of colored light bulbs. Some of these were in many colors.
When the shadows had gone, the ship next to us let loose with her siren. It was a horrible noise, worse than a(n) air-raid siren. After an interval of about fifteen minutes every ship in the harbor was blowing off a different note. The result was an awful din. In time various “V”s could be distinguished on various sirens. Some put in a “J” after the “V” making “VJ” in Morse Code. Rockets (distress flares) and Vary lights (bright light flares) were being fired freely now all over the harbor. Green, red, yellow and white ones … Green and red lights shooting up into the air and then back down into the sea. Rustic “VJ”s on hooters and much cheering completed an unreal atmosphere. Blackout was abandoned.
By 9:00 PM, the fun increased in tempo. Many were drunk now; where they got the spirits and beer is a mystery … Early an attempt had been made to mount a concert but the hooters drowned out any attempt to sing. Shooting pretty lights into the air got pretty tame after a while. Ships started firing rockets at each other. Then they all started firing at the aircraft lined up on the upper deck of an aircraft carrier. An urgent signal was sent round the harbor to stop firing rockets … It says something about discipline that the rocket shooting soon stopped. How it started I know not as I thought that all rockets were kept under lock and key.
Instead jumping jacks were fired from rocket launchers. These were fearsome projectiles. They came in various colors and shot from left to right, from front to rear. Shooting down between deck awnings they scattered all and sundry. They were powerful, much stronger than bonfire night jumping jacks. They possibly were Chinese ones but who got them and from where is not known. The awnings (rigged on Relentless) were burnt in several places and a fire arose on one of the gun covers.
This led to hoses being turned on to put out all the small fires that had started. Generously, ships put out each other’s fires by hose. After that the hoses were turned on other ships’ crews. Everybody was wet through. Chaps coming back on board from shore leave were caught in this deluge.
After that things died down, various concert parties were got up impromptu. We were tied up beside the Woolwich, the destroyer parent ship. We got out a singing party and wheeled our piano out onto the quarter deck so that others could see and hear us. The quarter deck was beautifully decorated with bunting. Out came our players in their costumes and started to sing. The stokers on the Woolwich did not seem to appreciate our singing; they turned a hose pipe on us. The drums were soaked as was the piano; the bunting was all bedraggled. They did have the foresight to close the bulkhead that gave us access to their ship. Had we made contact, World War III would have broken out between us. By now, a lot of people were drunk …8.
“I Was Only Married a Fortnight”– War Brides
The crew of the carrier Victorious was extremely disappointed that they were not among those selected to go to Tokyo Bay for the official surrender ceremony. They felt slighted as theirs had been the only one of the four British Pacific Fleet carriers to have remained continuously “on the line” during operations against the Japanese. They resignedly accepted the decision to head for Sydney and, as they reached the Bay of Brisbane, all of the aircraft on board were disposed of by pushing them over the side.9. Sailors clambered into them to strip them of dials, clocks, instruments, and all manner of souvenirs even as they were being unceremoniously shoved towards the edge of the flight deck. After a brief stay in Australia, the ship steamed back home where she arrived in October. Just two weeks later, she was ordered back to Australia to help transport troops and former POWs, many in poor physical condition, back to Britain. Two weeks after disembarking the troops and former prisoners at home, Victorious was ordered to Sydney again, this time to transport Australian women who had married British servicemen during the war back to Britain. There were close to 700 war brides.10.
The women, ranging in age from 15 to 41, had met and married British or Dutch naval personnel who had either taken shore leave or been assigned duty in Australia during the war. The men, from far and wide in England or the Netherlands, had left their brides behind when they were transferred away from Australia by the demands of the war. By the war’s end, practically all of the husbands had either been demobilized or stationed back in their home country.
British and Australian authorities lobbied for transport service and Victorious was the only warship ever used by England for such a purpose. By July 1946, the Royal Navy had made modifications to the carrier’s internal spaces, notably the hangar deck, and sent her to Australia to give passage to the women. The ship and practically all of the brides arrived at Plymouth after a 36 day voyage.
One of the ship’s log entries for 02 July 1946 was, “Commenced embarkation of wives of naval personnel for passage to UK,” and one of the passengers, Mrs. Bill West, described the ship’s departure,
The mighty Victorious drew away from Woolloomooloo wharf with the brides at many vantage points. (There were) bright streamers trailing from the ship’s sides. Our families and friends, apprehensive and tearful, (were) waving goodbye from the wharf and the (Sydney) Harbour Bridge gradually receded into the distance. 11.
Mrs. West’s husband, Bill, had served on Victorious’ sister carrier Indefatigable as a Telegraphist/Air Gunner on an Avenger. During a rough shipboard landing in late April 1945, the TAG was pitched violently forward. He struck his face against one of the plane’s hard surfaces. The injury could not be well tended to in the carrier’s sick bay so the injured air crewman was sent to a military medical facility in Sydney. He was not so severely injured, however, that he could not take advantage of evening or weekend liberty passes which he used for visits to the British Service Club. The Club offered home-style meals and recreation. It was there that he met the woman, a volunteer hostess, with whom he would remain married for over 60 years. After a period of dating during which he met her family, he had to make a request through his ship’s captain for permission to marry. The prospective bride was interviewed by the Royal Navy who was satisfactorily impressed with her background, education, and employment history. The young couple was allowed to marry. TAG West’s military duties took him back to England alone where he was demobilized to return to his pre-war job. His wife reunited with him in August, 1946. 12.
While in transit to England on Victorious, the brides were kept busy with work as typists and clerks.They were entertained with movies, arts and crafts, a library, a beauty salon, sports, fashion shows, a dress ball, lectures on what to expect in England, and the traditional ‘crossing the line’ ceremony at the Equator. As Victorious had been built with numerous narrow and dark passageways, compartments, and spaces; there were nightly “chastity rounds” conducted by ship’s officers. These patrols were described by the captain as, “rounds of all weather decks, galleries, and gun positions … carried out frequently and at irregular periods after dark. All women had to be in their bunks by 11 P.M.”
Despite all precautions and preparations, there were some aspects to the trip from Australia that were not fully happy or well publicized. According to Raymond Barker of Victorious,
It was (quite) a trip because some of (the women) fell in love with sailors on board and some of them didn’t want to get off the ship at Plymouth (because) they wanted to go home again. Some of them, their husbands refused to come and meet them at Plymouth, and so we were left with some of these girls crying on the quayside. It was a most stressful trip. I had one come to work for me in the (ship’s) office, Veronica was her name. She’d knocked on the office door and said, ‘Can I do anything?’ … She said, ‘I can type and do things like that,’ so I said, ‘I can find you one or two little bits and pieces to do just to keep you out of mischief.’ Then she confessed to me that she didn’t want to go to her husband who lived in (England); that she’d fallen in love with a chap on board … ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I was only married a fortnight and then he went away and I haven’t seen him since.’ One disappeared in (an eastern Mediterranean port); they weren’t allowed to go ashore unless they had two naval escorts with them, two men with them, but this one gave the two men the slip and we never saw her again. We think she might have tried to hitch hike back to Australia on a ship going through the Suez Canal; we don’t know. We didn’t hear any more about her. So, yes, it was an interesting naval voyage the like of which I never contemplated … we had to mount night patrols round the ship to stop any malarkey from going on but, in fact, there was some and when we got to Ceylon; Colombo … the captain had all the war brides up on the flight deck and he addressed them and he said that if any more of this nonsense came to his notice he would put them off at the next port because this was a mission of mercy that we were carrying out taking them back to their husbands and their behavior was very unbecoming. He didn’t mention the behavior of his crew which was none too salubrious either. 13.
As they left the ship at Plymouth at the end of their journey, the brides were greeted by the mayor and handed a card that read,
As you step ashore I bid you welcome to Britain and this historic city. Our ties with you and your folk have always been very close, and during the war those ties have been strengthened. For five years squadrons of the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) were honoured guests of this City. Many of our girls have found happy homes in your country. May you have great happiness here in the Motherland, and may God’s blessing lay upon you.14.
“If There’s a Heaven For People, There Could Be for Ships”
Veteran battleship HMS Warspite was back at Portsmouth and paid off in February 1945. She was then sold for disposal in 1946. As the old ship was being towed to the breaker’s yard in 1947 she ran hard aground. By then former infantryman Donald Delves, who had benefitted from the battleship’s shelling of the Germans at Salerno, was back in England, out of the service, and employed as a metal worker. Delves remembered the battleship fondly.
After being demobbed our paths (mine and Warpite’s) would cross again. Me, back in civvy street … On 23rd April 1947, my friend HMS Warspite, “The Grand Old Lady,” broke her tow and came ashore at Crudden Point, Prussia Cove in Mounts Bay. I worked on her during her stay there and cut off her front turret which weighed some 700 tons. Each day that I did this I kept thinking, ‘I’m cutting up my friend who helped me at Salerno Bay.’ She seemed almost human to me. I can’t explain it but it was heartbreaking to destroy this fine warship. At the end of July 1950 she was refloated to go to a breaker’s yard in South Wales, but shortly sprang a leak in her boiler room and had to be towed to Marazion, quite close to St. Michael’s Mount, and beached. She was taken away piece by piece and by the end of August 1956, HMS Warspite was no more. My friend at Salerno was finally gone and it left me very sad. There was no warship like her. If there is a heaven for people, there could be for ships. I know the Lord will take her into His midst.15.
Economic necessity held no sentiment and soon after the war numerous other Royal Navy ships, many of which, like Warspite, had been home to countless young men in their formative years were scrapped. The destroyer Eskimo, veteran of Narvik and the Pedestal convoy, was dismantled in 1949. Battleships Rodney and King George V, Bismarck’s vanquishers, were broken up in 1948 and 1959 respectively. Light Cruiser Ajax, once entirely painted in pink and victor of the Battle of the River Plate, was almost sold to Chile. Prime Minister Churchill, unwilling to have the renowned ship be so ingloriously removed from the Royal Navy roster, blocked the transaction. The ship was sent under her own name and her own flag to the breaker’s yard in 1950. Battleship Royal Sovereign was loaned to the Russians in 1944, renamed Archangelsk, and used by the Red Navy as an Arctic convoy escort. She was returned to Britain after the war to be scrapped. 16.
A few of the sturdiest wartime ships were retained in service. Light cruiser Belfast served in the Korean War and was later made suitable for the nuclear age through the addition of atomic, biological, and chemical warfare upgrades. She served until her final decommissioning in 1963. Aircraft carrier Victorious also stayed active after the war. She was thoroughly modernized in 1957. Equipped with the latest jet aircraft, she served as a front-line ship until suffering a catastrophic fire in1967. Deemed too costly to repair, the ship was dismantled in 1969.
Only half dozen World War II navy ships remain in England. All are museum craft or memorials. Light cruiser Belfast, operated by the Imperial War Museum and open daily to visitors, lies calmly at anchor in the Thames River. The other ships are the destroyer Cavalier, the World War I-era monitor HMS M-33, and three submarines. Canada retains two ships from the Second World War. The Tribal class destroyer HMCS Haida is a National Historic Site at Hamilton, Ontario. The world’s sole surviving Flower class corvette, HMCS Sackville, designated as a Canadian Naval Memorial, is at Halifax. Australia maintains a River class corvette, HMAS Diamantina, as a museum ship at Brisbane.
“I Came Off the Ship … And I Was Lost”
While post-war demobilization quickly thinned the Royal Navy’s personnel rosters, a core of experienced and talented men remained in uniform. Among those who stayed were several who would rise to prominence. Captain Eric Brown, who demonstrated merchant ship launched aircraft for Winston Churchill and who later survived the sinking of HMS Audacity, went on to become one of the world’s premiere test pilots. At the time of his passing in 2016, he held the record for the most carrier landings made by any single pilot. Over his career, Captain Brown test flew over 480 different types of aircraft. RAF pilot Kenneth Cross who survived the sinking of HMS Glorious, went on to head Britain’s nuclear armed bomber command and ultimately became Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross. Albert Pitman who started out as teen-aged artificer aboard Hood earned an officer’s commission and stayed in the Navy until 1968. In his very active civilian life, he worked as a theater manager and became the owner of, first, a pub and, later, an antique shop. Victor Stamp, the cook who “did it all” while aboard Ramillies, remained in the Navy as a cook and cook instructor until 1960. Gus Guthrie, the Marine Musician and downhill skier at Murmansk, stayed with the Navy until forced to retire for medical reasons in 1953. Guthrie went on to a long and satisfying civilian career as a music instructor.
Raymond Barker of HMS Victorious decided to decline the Navy’s offer of an officer’s commission. When asked to at least think it over, he did not hesitate to say, no. Although he had no clear idea about what his post-war future would hold, he was certain that it would be as a civilian.
I came off the ship … after almost five years (and) I was lost. It had been the crucible of my manhood, really. I had gone on when I was 19 and I came off when I was 24 … all my adult formative years had been on board that ship. It had been my security, my home, the place where I made friendships; some very good ones, as well … companionship, joys, sorrows; all kinds of emotions that had all been experienced on board that ship. I actually shed a few tears when I stood on the jetty at Devonport and looked at her. She was rusting and the guardrails were all chipped and battered; she was in a right old battered state … of course she had been neglected; she had been pushed too hard like a lot of the other ships and then she was seeing the end to her useful life and I felt deeply, deeply sad. Once I left the ship, she had been MY Navy, Victorious had been the Navy then … that was the end of my naval service, really. 17.
After some thought about it, Barker decided that he could not bear to return to his pre-war job as a newspaper reporter. He could no longer tolerate the profession’s “darker side” of unbridled alcohol abuse. Instead, admitting that his years in the Navy had encouraged him to enjoy travel, he went on to a lifetime career in the travel industry.
Frederick Jewett, a former boy seaman at HMS Ganges, had not completed the full term of his compulsory service when he requested to be discharged at the end of the war. He was required to show that he would be either employed in the mining industry, heavy manufacturing, or law enforcement. When he secured the promise of a job as a police officer in Newcastle, he was then asked by the Navy for a sum of 36 pounds for his release. Jewett gladly paid and was given his discharge. Jewett laughingly recalled that he was formally let go from the Navy one full day prior to what became his officially scheduled discharge date. In doing this, the Navy would retain the right to recall him for “time in service owed” and then retain him for whatever length of time it deemed suitable.
Gunner Thomas Adams expressed that the most significant thing that he took from his time in the Navy was having learned to be tolerant of others. Adams’ experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war led him to work with one of Britain’s non-government Far Eastern Prisoner of War (FEPOW) Associations that were established to assist former POWs or their widows. The work of men like Adams has been taken up by members of COFEPOW, the Children of Far Eastern Prisoners of War, founded in 1997. The latter organization is a registered charity and one of its chief goals is to perpetuate the memory of those who, in service to Britain, were taken prisoner by the Japanese.
Gordon Richmond who once had met Mary Churchill aboard the battlecruiser Renown, was granted his discharge soon after the war’s conclusion. He went on to a career in the merchant marine.
I got my (Navy discharge) notice to say, “Thanks very much … that’s the end of the line, mate … the boot.” So I was transferred (off my ship) to Sheerness to await my discharge. … We were all issued with what we called ‘Demob Uniforms.’ The Government had decided … we had a gratuity, fifty pounds, a lot of money then, so armed with my fifty pounds we went into the clothing store and were issued with suits. Well, the suits fitted where they touched. I think they had barbed wire knitted into them … I think they must have had contracts for the cheapest material that they could get for these suits … The hat looked like (what) an American gangster (would wear), with a narrow brim. I am sure it was cardboard … Well, of course, I got rid of that … didn’t I? So that was the end of that … End of the line .18.
Nicholas Monsarrat, writing about what the Royal Navy’s wartime sailors thought and spoke about noted that,
Their plans for the future all seem to center, not round jobs or a steady income, but on a house, a family, a private world which, no matter how cramped or poor it may be, will give them peace against all comers. That is what they (were) fighting for – the sure welcome, the bride, the old woman, the sprogs: their daydreams are the least ambitious and the gentlest of any I know. 19.
After the war, and to the present day, although in ever dwindling numbers, Royal Navy veterans get together and reminisce. They often talk about things to one another that they would prefer not to share with anyone else; not even wives or children. Hubert Hancox who served aboard the battleship King George V offered his view of it.
A strong bond was formed by shipmates through shared experiences, particularly so among old messmates … Our ship, a battleship, had a crew of around 2,000 and one didn’t know everyone, but your own messmates became close … after all you lived, ate, relaxed in off duty hours, and slept in the (same) confined space … (we) worked together, too … the ship’s company was your constant companions … at sea. It’s good to meet up with your old mates, and to an extent relive the days of our youth. We had and still enjoy a good laugh … most of us did come home and, as in life generally, one tends to remember the good times. 20.
Of his own post-war sentiments, novelist Monsarrat wrote,
I used to talk about the war at sea for a year or so afterward, and then it became a bore, and peacetime grew exciting and much more important. I wrote about it twenty years ago (in his 1951 novel, The Cruel Sea), but never again. Yet even now, a great wheeling quarter century later (1970), it is still vivid, still awful, still a scar of sorts, however handsomely healed …21.