If the Guinness Book of Records had been around at that time — my granddad would have been a contender for the “Man who was on the most ships sunk in WWII” record.
The stated purpose of this mini-series is to discuss how technology has evolved during my lifetime, and to consider what we might expect to see coming our way in the future. However, since my story is really a continuation of my parents’ chronicles, I almost immediately veered off to talk about my dear old mom.
As you may recall, at the end of Part 1, we left her in the middle of WWII with her siblings and my grandmother, all huddled in front of a coal fire, listening to the radio, and waiting to see if more bombs would fall that night. But where was my grandfather, you may ask. Well, therein lies another tale…
My granddad, Ernest Housman, joined the Royal Navy in 1913 as a 14-year-old boy. He served in WW1, was taken prisoner during the Zeebruge Raid in 1918, and then returned to active duty as soon as he was released after the war had ended. In 1919, he became embroiled in the Russian Revolution, because his ship was used to transport Russians — predominantly aristocrats — fleeing from the communists to seek asylum in England. Later, he was in the party that charted Borneo to create the first credible map of the area, and he was also in the team that charted Singapore Harbor using rowing boats, surveying equipment, and weighted lines (to measure the depth of the water).
You may remember that my grandmother caught meningitis when she was about 17 years old, which caused her to lose her hearing. In turn, this meant her chances of getting married were close to zero, since — in those days — most folks treated deaf people as if they were daft. Sad to say, this sort of suited my great grandfather, who anticipated having a spinster daughter to look after him in his old age.
And then my granddad met my grandmother while visiting a friend, and the rest — as they say — was history (I don’t think my great grandfather ever forgave my grandparents for their insurrection, even though he lived with them until he died).
Granddad came out of the Royal Navy to take a job as a bus conductor a few years before the start of WWII. However, he stayed in the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR). With only eight weeks in the RNR to go, two weeks before England declared war on Germany, the police came in the dead of night and took granddad away to put him on a train to Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) in Portsmouth. From my mother’s point of view, she went to bed having a father at home, and awoke the next morning to find he had disappeared from her world.
Is the Fire Better if it’s Friendly?
Granddad’s first posting was on a ship that sailed for Africa, only to be sunk three months later in a “friendly fire” incident. In some ways this would set the scene for things to come, because — if the Guinness Book of Records had been around at that time — granddad would have been a contender for the “Man who was on the most ships sunk in WWII” record. I’m not joking when I say that granddad never learned to swim; like many sailors of his generation, he felt that it would be better to drown quickly than to draw things out for days in the middle of an ocean with no hope of help to come.
As an aside, in later years, following a massive stroke that left him paralyzed down one side, grandad came to live with us. He spent his days watching the television and sharpening a large folding knife on a whetstone (let’s just say that Crocodile Dundee would have been proud). I was a young boy. One day, I asked to borrow granddad’s knife because I was making a rope ladder at the bottom of the garden. He whipped it out with his good hand (it seemed to appear from nowhere), opened it with his teeth, and handed it to me saying, “be careful with this son, it’s sharp.”
He wasn’t joking. It was like a razor. If I had it about my person today, I’d be arrested for carrying a lethal weapon. When I brought it back, I asked, “Granddad, who do you keep your knife so sharp?” He looked at me with what can only be described as piercing eyes (I also got the impression he was looking past me, seeing things hidden deep in the mists of time), and — without any emotion in his voice, which made what he said all the more intense — he replied, “Son, having a sharp knife has saved my life more times than I care to remember.”
This was when I remembered what my mom had told me about the many times granddad had almost gone down with his ship, and I could imagine him using his knife to cut away ropes that were trying to drag him down and pulling himself up onto pieces of floating debris. As he spoke, I could feel chills running down my spine. But we digress…
Damn the Torpedoes!
After two week’s recuperation and several months’ additional training, granddad was posted to the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, where he was Captain of the A Gun turret. The Prince of Wales was involved in several notable actions, including the Battle of Denmark Strait against the German battleship Bismarck in 1941.
The pride of the German navy, Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz were two of the largest battleships built by any European power. In the Battle of Denmark Strait, the Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood fought the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which were attempting to break out into the North Atlantic to attack Allied merchant shipping. Only 10 minutes into the battle, the Hood took a shell to her ammunition magazines. As granddad told me, “One second there was a warship; a second later there was a hole in the water.” Only three members of the Hood‘s 1,418 crew survived. The Prince of Wales and the Bismarck both suffered heavy damage and broke off the engagement.
Much like Forrest Gump, granddad popped up in multiple interesting settings, such as the time Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had a historic meeting on the Prince of Wales. Then came Pearl Harbor. Since the Prince of Wales happened to be in the region of Singapore, they joined the battlecruiser HMS Repulse to engage the Japanese.
Sad to relate, the Japanese had a tremendous air force, whose main mission in life appeared to be the destruction of the Prince of Wales. Although the ship’s guns took on the planes, one of the first bombs managed to land in the engine room, thereby scuppering any chance of their moving out of range of enemy fire. The Repulse had already sunk by this time, so — from that point on — it was simply a matter of fighting as hard as they could while waiting for the ship to sink underneath them.
After the Prince of Wales succumbed, grandad performed his well-honed trick with the sharp knife and floating debris. Eventually, he was picked up and taken to Singapore, which was being hammered by constant bombing.
It wasn’t long before, based on his decades of experience in the navy, granddad was given the task of captaining a ship to South Africa. He started with a small number of British sailors and a Chinese crew, but the crew abandoned ship on the first night because they didn’t want to be parted from their families, so — against all the odds — granddad and his handful of sailors brought the ship to Cape Town, whereupon he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer (passing through Petty Officer) in recognition of his feat.
Missing, Presumed Killed
Unfortunately, communications systems weren’t as sophisticated in those days of yore as they are now. Following the sinking of the Prince of Wales, my grandmother was informed by the Admiralty that my granddad was “Missing, presumed Killed.” As far as my mother knew, she was without a father.
It wasn’t until over a year later that grandmother received a telegram saying, “Safe and well, love Ernest.” She wrote to the folks at the War Office, but they said they had no knowledge of any of this, so they left her on a miserly Widow’s pension. About six week’s later, another telegram arrived with the same message, but the War Office stood by its earlier position.
And then a third telegram arrived saying, “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, love Ernest.” Granddad had finally made his way to Northern Ireland, where they provided him with lots of wonderful food to bring home. My mother says that, since they had no refrigeration in those days, everything was cut into pieces and distributed amongst the neighbors. Not surprisingly, they all had a wonderful Christmas — first, because my granddad had returned from the dead; second, because they had forgotten how good food could taste.
As another aside, the War Office eventually refunded my grandmother with the money she should have had as the wife of a living, serving sailor. When grandmother eventually died, my mother discovered that this money had been put it straight into the bank and never been used. Grandmother had spent so many months wondering how to keep my mother and her siblings fed that she dared not leave herself without any backup ever again.
Weevil Surprise, My Favorite!
Germany’s invasion of Russia led to the Russian (or Arctic) convoys, which suffered appalling conditions and high losses in ships and men. These convoys are considered by many to be the most dangerous part of WWII for any serving sailor.
My granddad was posted to a brand-new ship called HMS Mounsey, which was leased from America. Put your hand up if you can hazard a guess as to the Mounsey‘s mission (I used the word “hazard” deliberately in the preceding sentence). Congratulations — you got it in one! Granddad spent the next few years on the Russian Convoys. I remember him telling me about the men sitting on deck cooking thick paste made with flour wriggling with weevils, because this was all the food they had left. The paste was wrapped around metal skewers and cooked over whatever wood they could find, including the ship’s piano.
My mom says this it’s no wonder granddad looked so old when he was finally discharged from the service in June 1945, which was almost immediately after the war ended in Europe, and only a couple of months before the surrender of Imperial Japan.
My mother also notes that, because granddad had a break in his service when he came out before the start of WWI, even though he stayed in the reserve, after 32 years of service, he never got a pension from the Navy (not that she’s bitter, you understand — she always grinds her teeth like that).
Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No, it’s Max’s Dad!
My mom was 15 when WWII drew to a close. As a major industrial city, much of Sheffield had been bombed into the ground. Everybody had lost loved ones. Food was still rationed and in short supply. If Little Orphan Annie had appeared on the scene and started to trill her signature song, Tomorrow, people would have shouted for her to shut up and go and annoy someone else.
I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around how tempting it must have been to fall into despondency. Fortunately for my mom, the future held my dad and — eventually — yours truly. In part three of this ever-growing epic, we’ll meet my dad and see what mischief he’d been getting up to during WWII. In the meantime, I welcome your comments and questions.