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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

THE BISMARCK EPISODE

AN EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT

SAM WOOD, DSM

PART ONE

Sam Wood - Bismarck Episode

Sam Wood, DSM

How can I put down on paper my memories in words that will convey to you my true feelings of what happened so long ago? How do I describe the feeling of exhilaration in battle when the adrenalin pumps madly through ones system? How do I make you feel as though you were there, as though you too were actually living the experience? The truth is I don’t think I can! I can only tell you the tale as I saw it, and hope that you will understand and perhaps forgive an old naval pensioner who may well be boring the pants off you. How do I describe the beauty of the North Atlantic Ocean with its marvellous and frightening grandeur throughout its wildest storms, followed by its calmness and peaceful serenity and colourful beauty? It takes on the mantle of a sailor’s friend and seems to say;

"Look at my colours of ice blue and orange gold, look how calm I am. How can I be anything but a friend to all that sail upon me?"

What the cruel sea does not tell you is how human souls lie sleeping under its haunting beauty!

Such was the description of the North Atlantic and its moods when HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Hood in company with two destroyers, left Scapa Flow to meet their destiny with the German battleship ‘Bismarck’ and the heavy cruiser ‘Prinz Eugen’ in May 1941. Let me now describe the events of the months leading up to the battle.

War broke out when I was serving on HMS Caledonia in Rosyth. ‘Caledonia’ was a liner formerly named ‘Bismarck’, which had been taken from Germany following World War One.

The Kaiser had intended to take it on a world cruise when he had won the war but it was now converted into a training ship for Boy Seamen and ERA apprentices. The majority of the Sick Berth Staff were transferred with all the Boy Seamen to a converted holiday camp in Douglas, Isle of Man.

We were joined there by others from various Boy Seamen training establishments such as ‘St. Vincent’, ‘Wildfire’, ‘Ganges’ etc., and commissioned HMS St. George. It seemed as though I was to enjoy a quiet war being stationed in an ideal spot, plenty of leave and a good run ashore. Beer only fourpence a pint, plenty of unattached females! Oh, what a lovely war!

One day I was brought down to reality. The tannoy told me to report to the Regulating Office pdq. where I was presented with a draft chit with instructions to Report to Naval Officer i/c Cammel Lairds, Birkenhead, job number 1234. I caught a steamer from the Isle of Man to Liverpool and a taxi to Cammel Lairds. The driver drove me straight through the dockyard gates and deposited me at the gangway of the most powerful looking battleship I had ever seen. What a frightening, towering sight it looked. I could hardly believe my eyes, it was awesome! The guns of the main armament seemed to spring from mountainous turrets and reach out for miles. The decks were covered with cables and wires, and little men were scurrying like ants all over the place. Welding flashes lit up the whole scene with weird explosions of blue light, compressors whined and chattered which all added up to present a scene of total confusion.

I boarded the ship to report to the Regulating Office (which took me half an hour to find.) I could not see any naval personnel, and every dockyard matey I asked hadn’t the faintest idea of what a Regulating Office was, let alone where it was. Eventually I came across a ‘Jack Dusty’ who took pity on me and escorted me off the ship to a long wooden hut, the temporary Regulating Office, which is where I should have reported in the first place. Having presented my papers to the RPO, I was told to go back on board the ship, stow my gear in the sick bay mess and go ashore to an address they gave me where I would be boarded until the main ships company arrived in three or four weeks. I settled down to this routine of living ashore and dealt with the arrival of medical stores and clearing dockyard debris from the sick bay. Finally the Ships Company arrived, the ship commissioned, and proceeded to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

We were kept very busy with working up trials, speed trials, manoeuvres, night shooting, you name it – the ship practiced it! This carried on month after month, everything seemed to have a sense of extreme urgency about it. The Ships Company were marvellous and the feeling of comradeship amongst the crew soon became obvious.

The sick bay was considered to be the most modern of sick bays found in British warships. Indeed it was. It was quite large, extending from port to starboard beam under decks below, and forward of A and B turrets. There were excellent medical facilities, X-ray, darkroom cum small laboratory, operating theatre, dispensing and examination rooms, a bathroom and separate isolation ward. I forget how many cots there were in the main sick bay area, but there must have been some 20 in all. The medical staff comprised a Surgeon Commander, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander, Surgeon Lieutenant and a Surgeon Lieutenant (D), a SBCPO, SBPO, two LBA’s, two SBA’s and one dental SBA. Miscellaneous ratings were trained in rudimentary first aid and its procedure. The Surgeon Lieutenant Commander was ‘Dick’ Caldwell later to become Surgeon Vice Admiral and Medical Director General (Naval)

In battle action, the main sick bay would be closed down and two medical stations manned. The main station was in the ‘armoured citadel’ amidships and was rigged out as a casualty station for all types of wounded and the first aid treatment they would need until any ongoing action was finished and it was considered safe to move all the wounded back into the main sick bay where better care and attention could be paid to their needs. The secondary medical station was forward in the seaman’s mess deck and was more of a clearing and receiving station where wounded could be treated and held until it was convenient to remove them to the sick bay, as a consequence, only first aid facilities were held. The primary station was manned by the Surgeon Commander, Surgeon Lieutenant, Surgeon Lieutenant (D), SBCPO, one LSBA, two SBA’s and first aid parties. The secondary station was manned by the Surgeon Lieutenant Commander, SBPO, one LSBA, one SBA and first aid parties.

Throughout the trials procedure we underwent a number of exercises dealing with problems which could face us in a possible future engagement with enemy forces by both sea and air. We were gradually becoming more confident in ourselves but always lurking in our minds was the thought that these were only mock exercises we were mastering. What would we be like when the real thing happened? The Surgeon Commander decided that our efficiency could be improved if we established a mobile medical facility above decks and so a medical rating was to be posted with first aid equipment and a roving commission to deal with wounded on the spot. It was decided to re-deploy the LSBA from the forward medical post and place him somewhere above decks!

Being the incumbent of this post I was given the task of finding a position near to the bridge, suitable to my requirements; to inform the nearest executive officer of my existence and purpose and to obtain his approval. I went up to the signal bridge and spoke to the Yeoman of Signals (who had been with me at St. George) and he suggested I use the conning tower, forward of the signal bridge, as it had a direct telephone link with the forward medical station. I was satisfied with the position, it was an armoured compartment with wide, slotted views to port, starboard and forward with a view over A and B turrets towards the bow. I established my position there and climbed the ladder to the bridge and reported my presence to the Officer of the Watch, which he logged accordingly. At the same time he informed me not to make myself too comfortable as it was also the secondary bridge position should the bridge be destroyed during action!

At each dawn and dusk exercise it was my duty to take up my action station and report by telephone to the forward medical station as "closed up and ready." Ready for what I had no idea. I was quite happy with my station, I had wonderful views of the sea all round the bow and to port and starboard, and with the routine of the ships company being carried on around, nobody bothered me. The only other occupant of the conning tower was a Leading Seaman and he had no idea why he was stationed there. In fact he checked once or twice as to whether he was in the correct place. He was told he had his orders to be there and he must stay. We used to play cribbage during our closed up periods until the OOW caught us and gave us a right rollicking. He asked if we thought we were passengers on a luxury cruise and would we care to ring for service should we require anything - if so we had better make the most of it because if he caught us again we would be "up on the bridge" in the "off caps" position. He confiscated our pack of cards and gave them to the Quartermaster with the remark that "we wished the QM to have them in appreciation of the good work he was doing." Furthermore he informed us that there was no use waiting until he had gone to call him a "bastard," he knew he was one and would continue to be so to all wrong doer’s. He was not a bad old stick though, he grinned at our discomfort and we realised we could have come off much worse had he so desired.

I always checked my equipment whenever we closed up, it consisted of 10 ampoules of morphine, two tourniquets, one forearm splint, assorted bandages, cotton wool and lint, one dozen labels and an indelible pencil! I wondered what the devil I could do with such inadequate supplies if a major action took place. When I mentioned this after stand down, all I ever received in answer was a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by "do your best" or "it may never happen." I too soon adopted this attitude, realising that it was useless being concerned about what may never happen. I consoled myself with the fact that I could only do my best, and if anything did happen in a subsequent action I would, because of my position, be on the receiving end of it and likely have no further interest in proceedings being amongst the first of the casualties. It was a sobering thought but helped ease my worries about inadequate medical supplies.

We carried on week after week with various exercises, always out in to the cold, stormy Atlantic. You soon got your sea legs - you had to for there was little time for sympathy. Our entertainment committee certainly worked hard for in the evenings we had cinema shows, sod’s theatre, bingo and concert parties. Our SBPO, Percy Silk, was a great entertainer. He could literally make a piano talk and his renderings, to musical accompaniment, of his adventures whilst on the pre-war China station would almost bring the house down.

Saturday runs ashore were great. You drew two beer tickets from the Regulating Office. Libertymen was piped at 1300 when we would parade under the eagle eye of the OOW. The way we were inspected you would think we were going to be on parade outside Buckingham Palace. Why we had to be so spick and span to land on Flotta in Scapa Flow I will never know, a more miserable place would be hard to find. It was nothing more than a rocky island with no trees and little vegetation. Its only redeeming feature was the Fleet Canteen, Jolly Jack’s idea of a Scapa Flow Saturday entertainment. Egg and chips, the British soldiers dream of home cooking. Where else in war time could one be served, at the cost of one shilling, with a plate full of greasy, half-cooked chips the colour of pale straw congealed with beads of cold fat, topped with a greyish curled up egg, the centre of which had a dark orange eye? The whole egg was as hard as a whores heart, a doorstep slice of bread and margarine accompanied by a mug of steaming tea which tasted as if it had been brewed a week ago. Nevertheless, it did not matter, once paid for it belonged to Jolly Jack, he could moan about it, eat it or just throw it away. The decision was his alone, it was his and no other had the right to touch it. The tables were full of plates of mashed up chips and sliced eggs. It appears that at one time a rumour had started that any unfinished and undamaged meals were collected and sold to ships’ Pay Masters and served for meals on any ship unfortunate enough to put into Scapa in search of provisions.

Other tables would be occupied with card players competing for each other’s beer tickets whilst still others would be playing Crown and Anchor or Find the Lady. At the far end of the canteen would be a civilian concert party vainly trying to entertain crowds of matelots who, with their repartee, were better entertainment than the concert players themselves!

Suddenly the shout "bar open" rang out, which everybody had been waiting for, and a thousand cheers raised the roof. There was a stampede for the serving hatches. Jack knew from experience that serving hatches had a nasty habit of closing before one got served and he was determined to have his share of the afternoons ration, come what may. Tables were soon filled with pints of NAAFI beer, God what slush it was but up here what did it matter? If Jack had been in Liverpool, Plymouth etc., and had such slush served up he would have poured it over their heads in double quick time but here in Jacks own Flotta canteen it was nectar, fit only for consumption by the Gods. What did it matter that his stomach heaved and shuddered at the thought of receiving such rubbish. This was Saturday afternoon, he was far from home and his loved ones, the newspaper he had read told him he was in the Royal Navy and suffering hardship in true naval tradition, therefore, whilst he was swigging his pint that afternoon the world owed him a living and it was his intense desire to be left alone until his tickets ran out. Talk of Drake bowling on Plymouth Hoe whilst the armada approached; Hitler could have been reviewing his fleet in Scapa Flow, Jolly Jack was not to be done out of his hogwash beer.

As the afternoon progressed the noise increased as the pianos and singers tried to outdo each other. Tables were banged with gusto. Now and again the naval patrol would cart off a couple of entrepreneur’s who had been operating an illegal Crown and Anchor board. This sight would be greeted by howls of derision against the unfortunates, especially from those who had been taken for their money. Shouts of, "Hope you get 90 days!" would accompany their removal by the crushers.

Eventually the concert party would give up in disgust. The one member of the concert party who came in for most stick had dodged being called up through "stomach trouble." This fact was well known throughout the fleet and he was booed at every appearance, I believe he gave up visiting the navy and concentrated on army concerts where he was not known. I think he has a Lordship now but don’t know how he has managed to last so long with a dodgy stomach!

The money ran out and the canteen closed! Jack now made his way to the jetty to catch the drifter back to his ship. Modes of travel depended upon the state of inebriation, some travelling in wheelbarrows propelled by obliging shipmates, often in no better state than their passengers. Others travelled in groups of three, the middle man trailing his feet whilst his companions vainly tried to hold him upright. The RN Patrol wagon followed at a leisurely pace, stopping every now and then to load up more poor unfortunates who would be delivered back to their ships at the convenience of the Provost Marshal.

The most spectacular sight I saw of sailors returning to the jetty was Nobby (Clark), Slinger (Woods) and Chalky (White) who had successfully dodged the patrols and had reached the entrance to the jetty area. The jetty was about a half mile long with a slight downward gradient from shore out to sea. As the trio neared the start of the jetty, they espied a dumper truck on the miniature railway line, used to carry building supplies along the jetty. They had the brilliant idea of saving themselves a long walk along the jetty by climbing on the truck and had persuaded one of the building workers to let off the brake and push the truck along the jetty. A few duty free fags were all that was required to engage the workman in this part of the plan. All went well for about 100 yards until the gradient got steeper and the poor fellow found he could not keep pace with the truck. Rapidly making himself scarce he left the truck and its occupants to their fate. The truck gathered speed and went at a fair rate of knots towards the end of the jetty eventually crashing into the bumper bars where it tipped up and dumped three dazed sailors unceremoniously in front of the RN Patrol! The last I saw of them was three, grey-cement covered bodies being man-handled into the patrol wagon to meet their fate. Never a dull moment!

The drifters were full of liberty-men as they pulled away from the jetty and set out to the various ships of the fleet scattered around Scapa Flow, but even then the entertainment was not over. The eagle-eye of the OOW on each ship would weigh up the drifters approaching, you could read his mind as he looked at the motley crew of drunken sailors and almost hear him say, "What a shower, I’ll show them!", upon which he would instruct the Quartermaster to indicate to the drifter not to come alongside the gangway but to approach the swinging boom. This consisted of a long wooden boom that swung out from the side of the ship. At its extreme point away from the ship dangled a Jacob’s ladder, its bottom rung just touching the surface of the water. The drifter would approach but not secure to the ladder which meant that in a choppy sea, tide movements, or wind, the loose ladder sometimes scraped the deck of the drifter and the next movement could be swinging and swaying wildly over the water. A somewhat disorderly line would form on the drifter’s deck, the first sailor would make a grab for the ladder accompanied by the cheers and jeers of his fellow shipmates. Climbing the swinging ladder after a few pints was a rather difficult exercise and on reaching the top one had to grab the main wire stay which ran from the point of the boom back to the ship at an angle of about 25 degrees. It was then a question of pulling oneself upwards, trying to locate the flattened top surface of the boom with your feet and then side stepping along the boom whilst maintaining your balance with your hands on the main stay wire. On reaching the ships side it was necessary to climb over the guard rail, salute the OOW and if you passed his inspection make your way down to the mess where you boasted a wonderful run ashore, promptly fell asleep until shaken and told to turn in at lights out! In the meantime the ships cutter would be busy fishing out of the water those unfortunates who had signally failed to safely negotiate the hazards of rope ladder climbing and walking the boom. You could guarantee at least two poor souls, maybe more, would finish up in the drink. Never mind, a good time was always had by all!

Suddenly one evening as we were sitting relaxed in the mess finishing supper, some men writing letters home, others making their way to the cinema flat to play bingo and exchange the latest gossip and buzzes. The lights momentarily dimmed, a throbbing vibration shook the ship and the tannoy blared, "Special sea duty men, close up at the double!" Everyone looked at each other, the same question on their lips; "What’s on?" This could hardly be an exercise. The noise and clatter increased and we were aware that the ship was under way. Following the appropriate bugle call the tannoy again blared out "Action Stations!" I rushed to my station in the conning tower and observed that at this point we were clearing Scapa Flow, preceding us was HMS Hood accompanied by two destroyers.

[Memories Index]


PART TWO>



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