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War Time on HMS Devonshire
By Bernard Mouzer OBE
Here is a piece about my time on Devonshire that i wrote some time ago. It refers to those photos. You will see the reference to Prince Olav which I now accept was an error!
‘We left the Isle of Man yesterday (9.44) and caught the overnight train from Fleetwood to travel North through the night, arriving at Thurso for breakfast on a lovely morning with beautiful views over the Pentland Firth to the Orkneys. A steamer took us to Scapa Flow and our first view of Devonshire lying at her mooring near Flotta was broadside on, rather like this photo – but the hands were busy storing and ammunitioning ship. We had all been very excited ever since we knew that we were at last going to sea in earnest and the ship was a beautiful and very welcome sight.
We settle into the Boy’s Mess where we meet some signals and telegraphist boys including Paddy Byrne who as a Fire Officer in Birmingham in later life is to remind me of these days on Devonshire, including our action with German torpedo bombers
Shortly after our arrival we hear the pipe, ‘Secure for Sea,’ and we are off on a serious operation, together with other units of the Home Fleet as a Russian Convoy Decoy. That is, we sail north as far as the Arctic Circle and sometimes within sight of enemy occupied Norway, hoping to draw enemy submarines, surface vessels or aircraft away from a convoy heading for Russia. We sleep in hammocks in a very crowded and claustrophobic space, the weather is diabolical during the night and all the boys are sick and dispirited.
We soon get over our sickness – in my case I am more or less OK for the rest of my life. Our instructors are the Chief PT Instructor and Leading Seaman Harry Larna – both first rate people. Our first PT session is on the upper deck, within sight of the Norwegian Coast.
We have a number of quite exciting operations in the North Atlantic in this last quarter of 1944. It is cold and sometimes very rough indeed. On one occasion in November the Captain tells us over the intercom that we are being shadowed by a German Aircraft, I think a Ju 88. Swordfish fighters take off in pursuit from an escort carrier but the enemy plane vanishes. When our planes have landed back on their carrier he pops up on the horizon again. The Captain tells us that we are going to be attacked after dusk, when it is too dark for our planes to take off and land. We are closed up at our aircraft defence stations. My place is as an ammunition hand on a starboard pom pom. Just as the action is about to start, the AB I am working with says, ‘Put a tin hat on Ginger.’
The action is short but fierce. All of our anti aircraft guns are involved and all hell seems to break out. I am busy handing ammunition and can’t see anything of the planes – just a night sky full of shells. But there is a running commentary from the Captain of Marines and great shouts of encouragement when a plane is shot down during three waves of torpedo bombing attacks. Paddy Byrne is with the Yeoman of Signals who is always next to the Captain on the Bridge during action so Paddy sees exactly what is happening. He says that three planes are downed. My only concern is to do my job properly. I wish that I could make a more substantial contribution. The thought hardly occurs to me that if just one torpedo strikes home the whole ship’s company could be despatched to a quick and icy grave
In 2006, 62 years later, I make contact with Bob Maxwell. He had joined the ship as a boy signalman 3 months before me. This is what he remembered.
I remember that night. The Radar was reporting 30 planes searching for our force which was the Devonshire, 2 escort carriers and 5 destroyers. One of the starboard escort destroyers fired a burst of oerlikon and we saw the tracers. The Gunnery officer announced stand by sector b for baker close range weapons. Next minute all the starboard side opened up oerlikon, pom poms, four inch and we could see the plane lit up with our tracers as she crossed over the quarter deck. That was when the Major of Marines fired our twin 8 inch from y turret. Our Torpedo Commander shouted we’ve got him. The old man said “you bloody fool torps that was his torpedo”. The plane went into the drink on the port side and everything went quiet but we heard some shouting from the water.
I remember afterwards going in to the radar office at the after end of the flag deck for a smoke and I had difficulty in getting a light for my fag because my hand was shaking so much as the reaction had set in.
That was when I saw that my pal, Jan Perring, was wearing a tin hat with 4 bands on it. The old man up on the compass platform was doing his nut because he couldn’t find his tin hat. As Jan said “First come first served”.
All the best
When we go down below to the Boy’s Mess afterwards, Johnson says, ‘Were you lot shitting yourselves? I was!’ and he does seem rather shaken up. Funnily enough, some years later he is awarded the DSM for his part in a patrol boat action during the emergency in Malaya.
On another occasion we are at sea with a large Fleet, including the battleship Rodney. During the morning we have been exercising with submarines. I am number 2 on a port side twin oerlikon. Suddenly we hear a destroyer’s siren signal a turn to starboard and as I run to that side of the ship to see what is happening I see the destroyer loosing depth charges, a submarine conning tower emerge out of the water and all our starboard side light armament open fire – pom poms, oerlikon and bofors. Devonshire is in a line of vessels and in seconds has drawn ahead of the sub, but astern of us is a sister ship, HMS Berwick and then the Polish cruiser Konrad. Shells certainly bounce off the sub’s conning tower but fortunately everyone ceases fire before any serious damage or injury occurs as the sub turns out to be HMS Trusty which was in company with us earlier in the day! To make matters worse, she ties up alongside us when we moor up at Kirkwall when we return to harbour.
Our usual mooring is on a buoy near the small island of Flotta. The anchorage is sealed off by a moveable boom which is operated by a small boom defence vessel. The boom does not provide complete security of course and the mast of HMS Royal Oak is still visible from when it was torpedoed whilst at anchor here with very great loss of life. Unless we are on watch we turn in early and the ship is darkened. If you are going on watch during the night you wear a blindfold in your hammock in order to preserve your night vision. One pitch black night in the North Atlantic I am commended for being the first person to sight units of another allied force with whom we are attempting to rendezvous. Actually, I hardly know whether I am seeing ships or imagining them, but as trained I sing out as loud as I can – there’s no harm done if I am wrong – but failure to report a sighting whilst you are dallying could mean the loss of your life.
We still spend a fair amount of time at school but the schoolies are by no means as helpful and encouraging as Mr Tarr was at St George. Nevertheless, I pass my Educational Test 2 in November and just after Christmas I am rated Ordinary Seaman as from 17 and a half instead of 18 – backdated to September. My wages go up, my back pay is saved and I transfer to the Fo’csle Division, 18 Mess. The Leading Hand of 18 Mess, Dinger Bell, welcomes me and introduces me to the other chaps. I don’t take to Dinger who seems over keen on rum but there is an older AB, Mickey Rooney on the mess who takes a fatherly interest and who turns out to be a great help and a very good influence.
I also pal up with a New Zealander, Lofty Campbell – R J Campbell RNZNVA. He sometimes writes a page of my letter to Audrey. We also do a bit of boxing.
I write to Audrey virtually every day but we are not allowed to give any information that could conceivably be of use to the enemy. Audrey’s letters are addressed to HM Ships, care of GPO London and my letters to her are censored – except for four privilege letters a month which go in a special envelope on which I have declared on my honour that the letters contain nothing but private and family matters.
The very first time that Ronnie Ham and I, whilst still Boy Seamen, fall in on the upper deck for work with the other foc’slemen, the PO in charge (the Captain of the Fo’csle) says, ‘I want two volunteers to paint the topmast.’ Nobody moves. But Ronnie and I look at each other and volunteer. The others give a sigh of relief and there are a few joking remarks. We make a good job of the painting and as far as we are concerned it is all a bit of fun. And another PO, the second Captain of the Fo’csle from the South African Navy gets his camera and climbs up with us.
I enjoy my time on Devonshire. I try to get as much exercise as possible. I play football and rugby when there is a chance. I also go boat pulling in the cutter and sailing in the whaler. Like a lot of the other chaps I go walking to and fro at a brisk pace on the fore deck when weather allows.
The normal onboard dress at sea and at Scapa is overalls, white vest and pants and a pair of socks. There is a huge bathroom and in the evening it is chock full of men washing their complete outfit in a bucket with a bar of yellow soap (pussers hard) followed by an all over wash and a self applied shower – pouring water over ourselves from the bucket. We wash and change like this every day. Getting the washing dry is a problem but we make use of all sorts of spaces.
I bag a place to sling my hammock on the upper deck and sleep there whenever possible. It can be distinctly chilly getting in and out of bed but once in the hammock it is warm and cosy – even though snow does sometimes drift in under my sheltered spot.
I write to Audrey virtually every day whether at sea or in harbour and she writes to me in the same way. She tells me about her progress at Handsworth College of Dress Design and Fashion Drawing and about the clothes that she contrives to produce for herself in spite of stringent clothes rationing. She manages to get additional clothing coupons, sometimes by buying them for two and sixpence each and is extremely inventive in the use of all sorts of materials including blackout material, linen sheets and her Dad’s old suits. She also spends a great deal of time at dances with friends. There are young airmen and other males in the picture but Audrey tells me all about them and assures me that there is nothing serious for me to fear. We talk more and more in our letters about getting engaged to be married but are concerned not to go against our parents’ wishes and especially not to offend Aud’s Dad.
I exchange a few letters with Doug and Audrey’s Dad – both of whom are now in Burma, Dick Crawford who is an air gunner, Ronnie Toone who is in the army and a couple of the St George boys. Together with Ronnie Ham I have a brief and intense involvement with the Plymouth Brethren. We are influenced by two older and deeply religious shipmates and thus in turn by some equally devout Orkney Islanders on Flotta. They all seem kind, considerate and thoroughly well meaning people but we are in a very susceptible position. After a couple of very pious months I start thinking for myself, read Thomas Paine and Voltaire and change direction quite drastically. Much later in life, around the turn of the century, when there is so much difficulty with Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists, I remember my own youthful susceptibility to quite extreme religious views.
Christmas 1944 is my first Christmas at sea.
Here is the menu for Christmas Dinner with signatures from our instructors and divisional officer Lt J C Beattie. Also Boy Ginger Storey who later became a Chatham GI and shot himself in the foot whilst demonstrating a Lanchester Machine Gun at Sheerness and Ian Kerr who shared a hut with me at St George and who won the Heavyweight Boxing Championship there. I met Ginger Storey years later at the Gunnery School and Ian Kerr I think just once when passing through the barracks at Chatham between ships. Ian had become a submariner and a Petty Officer Coxswain. Stag Drinkwater was a good pal as a Boy but I don’t think that our paths crossed again after the Devonshire.
On 8.5.45 we learn that Germany has surrendered and the war in Europe is over. We clean into our no 3 uniforms for Divisions. The Captain speaks to the Ship’s Company and we have a moving Thanksgiving Service. Since we have the afternoon off, most people go to sleep but are woken later to listen to Churchill’s historic speech on the radio – followed shortly afterwards by a signal from the Admiralty to ‘Splice the Main brace!’ I write to Audrey and to my parents. A while earlier, seeing how well the war was going, Audrey had written to say that she was making a red, white and blue dress for VE Day. I now write to suggest that the lads on the continent may have finished things more quickly than she was expecting! In fact she makes a white two piece dress from a sheet with a red, white and blue ribbon on the shoulder and joins in the great celebrations in Birmingham.
We have a celebratory run ashore to Flotta Fleet Canteen and then Devonshire sets off for Oslo with Prince Olav onboard. We are preceded by minesweepers and the mines pop up all over the place, some of them too close for comfort. A German minesweeper comes alongside to surrender and to assist and Norwegian pilots join us from Christiansand.
The passage of Oslo Fiord is unforgettable. We are lined up in smart uniforms on either side of the ship, the banks of the fiord are lined with celebrating Norwegians and boats are putting off from shore with flags and bands and bedecked with foliage. Oslo itself is in uproar. Some German units are still defying the armistice and there is occasional exchange of gunfire. Nevertheless, the whole population has taken to the streets, waving flags, singing, cheering and drinking. Surprising numbers of Norwegians are carrying arms. There are also a lot of Russian prisoners roaming about. Occasionally we hear a burst of shouting where a crowd of vigilantes have detained a young woman and cut off her hair for fraternising with the enemy.
We wander around, talking to Norwegians, Russians and other servicemen and generally sharing in the celebration and excitement. A group of students make friends with us and supply us with aqua vitae. We give away our sweet ration to children and I sign numerous autograph books – some of them with the name of Joe Baksi, the boxer. I am disappointed to see a soldier hit a young Norwegian rather brutally for touching his rifle when it was really only a matter of friendly curiosity. I wonder now why someone didn’t interfere and remember feeling very uncomfortable about it at the time but I was one of the very youngest men on the quay. This is the only bad behaviour by servicemen that I witness in Oslo.
Devonshire gives a fantastic party for orphaned children, with the crew dressed up as pirates, taking the children in the ship’s boats, walking the plank, having swashbuckling skirmishes with cutlasses, rigging sideshows and fitting a forestay for a rapidly made aeroplane slide – and of course regaling the children with chocolate and sweets that they have not seen for several years. In the meantime we are issued with a few free items from a German service warehouse, including 4711, which I keep for Audrey, a razor and a cup and saucer marked with the swastika.
Then we sail for Denmark, once again negotiating minefields and as we enter Copenhagen harbour a sailor on an accompanying warship is hit and killed by a bullet from one of the German units still holding out. There are further scenes of celebration in Copenhagen but food and wine are much more plentiful than was the case in Oslo where the population clearly had a worse time. We are moored at Langolini (sic) Jetty, very close to the celebrated Mermaid. There is much trafficking of tobacco in exchange for cameras etc. Lofty Campbell and I visit Tivoli Gardens and pal up with some RAF chaps. On the second night two of the RAF fellows get absolutely blind drunk but we leave them safely in the care of some of their mates. Here we are. Lofty Campbell is on the left.
There are two liners moored in the harbour, full of refugees who are living in the most atrocious conditions. The ships are obviously full of lice and we can see the passengers picking the lice off each other all day long. We understand that there is typhus onboard. The people are not allowed ashore and when I go with a work party to clean up a small German vessel that is said to have been subject to typhus we all shower and wash down with disinfectant as soon as we get back aboard.
Censoring is now relaxed and I am able to write to Aud on 25th to explain that we are escorting some German ships including the cruiser Nurnberg to Wilhemshaven.
German Cruiser Nurnberg viewed from HMS Devonshire
At about 1300 on 27.5.45 we arrive at Rosyth in company with Dido. The bad weather brightened up as we passed under the Forth Bridge and we entered harbour in fine style with the Marine Band playing ‘Here we are Again.’ On 6.6.45 we leave Rosyth for Oslo. Since Devonshire was the ship which brought King Haakon from Norway in 1941 it had been expected that we would take him back. However, the flag is in HMS Norfolk so that is where the King is and we are in company. Once again there are wild celebrations and parties and dancing onboard with Norwegian guests.
By mid June we are on our way to pay off the ship in Devonport and whereas I had been expecting to be drafted to another ship bound for the Far East and the war against Japan I leave the ship on 28.6.45 to take a course in gunnery radar at HMS Valkyrie on the Isle of Man.
I met Ronnie Ham in the recruiting office in James Watt St Birmingham where we had both joined up as boy seamen in 1943. We were friends in the same class whilst training at HMS St George in the Isle of Man and we then joined Devonshire in the Home Fleet based in Scapa Flow and remained close friends until after the end of the war in Europe when I left to go on a course and Ronnie stayed on Devonshire. That was the last I saw of him. I much much later found that he had gone on to become a Commander, whilst I left the Navy at age 30 as a Petty Officer Gunnery Instructor.
I am very sorry to have to say that when I eventually traced Ronnie Ham via the internet he had passed away eight years earlier – and we had been living quite close to each other.
I have attached that picture of receiving my OBE because it seems such an incredible coincidence that those two scruffy boy seamen painting Devonshire’s topmast in 1944 at Scapa Flow were both later honoured with an OBE, Ronnie in the Navy and myself in civilian life!
I think the picture of us together on Flotta was on a Sunday when we had gone ashore to a church or chapel service during an adolescent spell of religious fervour!
Yes, of course that is HM Queen Elizabeth – who I had met twice before, once when as an Acting PO on HMS Phoebe I had led a demonstration land fighting unit as part of a tattoo in Malta for her and Prince Philip and later when she awarded members of the gun carriage crew at her father’s funeral, the Royal Victorian Medal. But I can’t remember what the joke was!
But back to the pictures. One is of me in overalls on the upper deck. The one with the RAF guys is during the liberation celebrations in Copenhagen, The AB on the extreme left is Lofty R J Campbell RNZNVA who was a brilliant messmate when I reached 17 and a half and graduated to 18 mess as an ordinary seaman. I have tried hard to trace Lofty Campbell but without success. I still have letters that I wrote home to my girl friend – now my wife of 66 years – to which Lofty has added a few lines. I can’t remember the name of the other sailor in that picture but he was from Devonshire.
Then there is that picture of AB Mickey Rooney and his wife, another great friend and influence on 18 mess. I believe that his daughter wrote to the Association some years ago. I would love to tell any of his descendants what a great chap he was.
The picture of the ship in Copenhagen was within a few days of the end of the war. As you know that we travelled first to Oslo and then on to Copenhagen. I believe it is Langolinie Jetty, the site of the Little Mermaid.