Friday, April 04, 2008

Fullbore Friday

Eagle1's comments last Sunday had me thinking of mine warfare, and I thought I would share with you my favorite Mine Sweeper - the, ahem, HMS SALAMANDER!

Nothing drastic or overtly dramatic - much like your humble scribe, SALAMANDER had a modest role in a modest area; but found herself in some interesting places.

For a full story, check here, here, and here - but for SALAMANDER, let's look at a part of her service as seen through the eyes of Chief William Stone, RN.
On 27th May 1938, having returned home and joined the minesweeper H.M.S. Salamander, I married Lily Hoskin at Buckland-Tout-Saints, Goveton, near Kingsbridge, South Devon. We had known each other for many years as she was a friend of one of my sisters and lived in Goveton, where my family had remained whilst I had been away at sea.

By this time "Salamander" had sailed to Devonport for refitting and I was stationed in the barracks. Following our wedding, Lily and I lived in a flat at Plymouth, but when "Salamander" returned to Portland we rented a flat there where we lived for some months. I was often out minesweeping but was able to return to our home when the ship docked.

Lily became pregnant, but a week before our baby was born the ship left for Sheerness and never returned to Portland! I remember that time well - the air was filled with barrage balloons as defence against air attacks.

Our daughter Anne was born at Portland on the 28th August 1939 - just a week before war was declared! Not until the baby was three weeks old was I able to get special permission for long-weekend leave. Eventually Lily and Anne left Portland and returned to stay with Lily's parents at Wrangaton, near Plymouth, where they had now retired.

Early in the War I lost one of my nephews. Just a fortnight after the outbreak of war he had been lucky to survive loss of the aircraft carrier "Courageous" which was sunk in an attack by the German submarine U29 on 17th September 1939. He had told me that, on that occasion, as he was trying to get out, he had heard one of the Petty Officers shouting "Follow me!" Although he could not see the Petty Officer, he had followed the sound of his voice and managed to get out and had been rescued. Although my nephew was saved, many of my friends were lost with the "Courageous." However, my nephew was not so lucky a few months later when, on 8th June, 1940, "Courageous's" sister ship "Glorious" was lost off Norway in action with the German Battle Cruisers "Sharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" following the evacuation of Norway.

In those early months of the war "Salamander" was stationed at Grimsby and we were responsible for coastal minesweeping operations around the north-east. I managed to rent rooms at Cleethorpes and Lily and Anne travelled all the way up from Devon, by train, so that we could be together. On one occasion we had a close call. I was one deck down at the time but I gather that a mine got caught around one of the sweeps as it was being winched back in. Fortunately, someone spotted it and gave the alarm. They managed to free the mine from the sweep but in doing so or shortly after it detonated and blasted the side of the ship. Although there was no damage that threatened the ship itself, one of the plates which separated the oil tanks was ruptured and we had to go into docks to have that repaired.

In May 1940, when Germany advanced through Belgium and France, we were ordered by the Admiralty to the south coast to help with the Dunkirk evacuations. We did five trips to Dunkirk in all, rescuing 200 to 300 men each time. Things got worse each trip we made. Our final trip was on 1st June by which stage there was the wreckage of sunken ships all around and burning oil tanks by the dockside. Lines of troops were all marching towards the sea. We were anchored off the beach with one of our sister ships, the 'Skipjack', only about fifty yards away. At about 8am the German dive bombers came over and attacked 'Skipjack.' One of the attacking planes was shot down but 'Skipjack' was badly hit and capsized. She must have had about 200 men on board. I had to say "God, help us." I believe to this day that He did.

During our trips to Dunkirk, I was often stationed on the quarterdeck helping men get aboard "Salamander" as they swam out from the beach. Other groups of men had managed to find boats and row out to the ship. On one occasion I had a rope around a badly injured soldier who had bones sticking out of his trousers. Just as I tried to pull him in, the ship went ahead and I lost him. I don't know what happened to him.

Unknown to me, on our way back out on the final trip, we were attacked by a submarine that fired a torpedo at us. When we got back to Dover the Coxwain and the Able Seaman on the wheel said to me "Chief, we held our ears today and waited for the explosion. Jerry fired this torpedo that was coming straight for us amidships." "Salamander" had been saved by her shallow draft - the torpedo had passed straight underneath us. The only explanation that we could think of to explain our lucky escape was that the German submarine had mistaken us for a destroyer and had set the torpedo to run at a greater depth than the "Salamander's" draft.

Those were awful days but one just carried on as if nothing had happened - there was nothing else that you could do.

In all the years since Dunkirk I had never come across anyone whom we had rescued in the "Salamander" until the summer of 1999. It was then that, whilst at a reunion of the Henley Branch of the Dunkirk Veterans Association, a chap came up to me and said "What ship were you in at Dunkirk, Chief?" "Salamander," I replied. "You saved my life," he said. He told me that he had broken into a boat shed at De Panne in Belgium with some other soldiers and pinched a rowing boat. They had started to row home when we picked them up. It is pretty unlikely that they would have made it all the way back across the Channel in the rowing boat.

Following Dunkirk "Salamander" was put in to the Royal Albert docks in London to undergo repair to the damage that had been sustained during the evacuation.

Lily and baby Anne again came up from Devon to stay with friends at Wyndham Street, near Marble Arch, and I was able to spend the nights there.

After repairs we sailed to Invergordon in north east Scotland, where we were based whilst on duty escorting convoys.

Later the ship was transferred to Aberdeen for modifications to the minesweeping gear. Lily and Anne were again able to join me and we all stayed locally for a short while.

Soon afterwards came the devastating news of the loss of the "Hood." I remember well the day I heard that she had been lost. I was at home on leave with my family at Wrangaton at the time. I just couldn't believe it, and was unable to eat my lunch.

Those were dark days and the only ones in the war that I really felt down. A month or so later Hitler attacked Russia which brought that country into the war on our side. I felt that Russia coming in on our side was one of the best pieces of news I had heard in a long time. I had no real doubt about the outcome after that.

Of course one of the results of Russia becoming our ally was the start of the Russian convoys. H.M.S. Salamander was one of the ships which formed the escort on the very first such convoy, code named Operation "Dervish". The merchant ships left Liverpool on 12th August, 1941 and formed up at Iceland on 20th August where they were joined by "Salamander" and the other escort ships. We provided escort for the passage to Arkangel, where we arrived on 31st August. Unlike many of the later PQ convoys, "Dervish" proved to be an uneventful trip for us. As a Chief Stoker I was in charge of all the other junior Stokers on the ship.

Something that I do remember well from that trip is that “Salamander” was refuelled at sea. As I recall we took on about 50 tons of fuel oil. Being in charge of everything to do with oil and water in the ship, I was responsible for the "Salamander" end of the refuelling operation. All went smoothly from above decks.

During our return from Russia the Engineer Officer told me that when we arrived back I was due to leave the "Salamander". I asked to see the Commander as I didn't want to leave. The Commander would not change his mind though and said that I had been on the ship for 4 years and was due for a move. As it transpired he did me a favour as, later in the war, "Salamander" was nearly destroyed. She was minesweeping off Le Havre on 27th August, 1944 when she was mistaken for an enemy vessel by some RAF Typhoons. During that action our own aircraft sank two minesweepers, the "Britomart" and the "Hussar" and badly damaged "Salamander" - blowing off most of her stern.

So it was off to barracks for me to await a new draft. I had not been there a fortnight when I received a chit to say that I was going to be drafted. That day another Chief whom I knew greeted me "Morning Chief," he said, "Morning be buggered," I replied. "What's the matter with you old so and so?" he said. "I've got a draft chit," I said. "I know you have," he said "I'm going with you! We're going to Wallsend to stand by a new ship." "Oh, that's a lovely job!" I said.

William's story continues in Part 2: H.M.S. Newfoundland: Operation Husky and to Boston for Repairs.
She is an attractive girl.

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