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Growing Up Quickly: Onboard HMS Devonshire
“I enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1943 and when I was 17 joined my first ship H.M.S. Devonshire in Scapa Flow. Devonshire was by then a rather long in the tooth 10,000-ton cruiser with a main armament of 8-inch guns.
In those days, before the invasion of mainland Europe Britain was supplying weapons of war and munitions to North Russia by convoys at sea.
Lurking in the vely far north of Norway was the German battleship Tirpitz at that time the most powerful warship in the world. She weighed over 50,000 tons, was swathed in armour plating and had a main armament of 15-inch guns. Lying in Alten Fjord she was a festering sore in the side of the Admiralty who had to keep a force capable of destroying her if she came out to attack the convoys.
An operation was mounted to try and sink her so as to free badly needed warships for the war against Japan in the Pacific. We sailed one night from Scapa, the Commander in Chief flying his flag in the Battleship H.M.S. Duke of York in company with three aircraft carriers, another four cruisers and twenty-four destroyers.
Three days later we were sailing in position north of the Artic circle. The force was in a formation with the big ships in the centre, the cruisers spread around them with the screen of destroyers forming a vee across the mean line of advance. The formation wheeled round to head west into the prevailing wind and increased speed to thirty knots and flew off a strike of some 200 dive-bombers, torpedo bombers and fighters.
After take off the fleet was now ordered to turn 180 degrees and sail east. This was to cut down the distance for the returning planes. But whereas we had been the last ship in the formation heading west during the fly off we were now the leading ship heading east.
I was stationed at the after end of the bridge to keep an eye on the flagship in case she signaled us.
It was a colourful scene, the sun was shining out of a blue cloudless sky, with the camouflaged bows of our armada splitting the green sea and shoving the white bow waves aside, the white ensigns fluttering at the main masts. It was an exciting moment, the feeling of actually taking part in the war, the feeling of danger but not of fear. This was after all the Royal Navy at sea flexing its muscles against the Germans, this was what I had joined for; this is what I had always envisaged it would be like.
It was then I heard one of the forward lockouts shouting, “Dead ahead sir, land”. This was confirmed almost immediately by a report that land was showing up on radar 29 miles ahead. You didn’t need to have a degree in Geography to realise that this could only be the Norwegian coast.
As we continued to sail east the range reduced and soon we could see quite plainly the mountaintops above the horizon and between them the cleft that was the entrance to Alten Fjord. We were within twenty miles of Norway when our Captain, sitting in his chair gazing ahead at the Norwegian Mountains, shouted for my boss, the Chief Yeoman of Signals. Make a signal to Commander in Chief he said, “Request permission to enter Alten Fjord and engage the Tirpitz”. The Chief Yeoman motioned me to jump onto the 10 inch signalling projector. “Call up C in C” he said. As I tapped out the morse call sign on the lamp I said to the Chief “He doesn’t really mean it does he?”“Course he does”, he replied, “That D.S.O. he’s got isn’t enough for him he wants a Victoria Cross to keep it company”. I transmitted the signal and waited for a reply.
By now my earlier feeling of bravado was decreasing. The thought of our old under gunned ship entering Alten Fjord to face the juggernaut, five times our weight, that lurked inside, plus the shore gun installations and a flotilla of German Elbing class destroyers. The patriotic vision of the bands playing and flags waving was receding into the far comers of my mind and reality loomed up as I thought of our immediate, possibly short-lived future.
Our call sign flashed from the Duke of York. I read the signal while the Chief Yeoman wrote it down. From Commander in Chief to Devonshire, reference your last signal, not approved. The Chief Yeoman went and stood behind the Captain and read out the reply. There was silence for a few moments only broken by the sound of a few dry throats swallowing, mine included. The Captain turned round and my heart missed several beats as I saw tears running down his cheeks. “I wanted to show the Commander in Chief what my ship and my crew could do”, he said in a broken voice.
The silence was only broken by the hiss of the bow wave throats getting swallowed, mine included. I walked back to my station at the after end of the bridge and it was then that I fully understood how and why the history of the Royal Navy had been formed. This was how men had acted to establish the tradition and verve that had kept our island home secure for so many centuries. This was Grenville fighting the Revenge against all odds; this was Drake fighting and dying in Nombre Dios Bay with the scuppers running blood; this was the Nelson dash that broke the line at Trafalgar flying his last signal “Engage the Enemy more closely”. This had frightened the life out of me. I grew up then. The seventeen-year old boy became a man. It was a long time ago but the memory is still there in my mind as clear and as sharp as the day it happened.”