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The following is an excerpt from his memoirs, "Never Make a Sailor"
"My job at action and defence stations was Sightsetter on my particular gun and I was actually at my station when we were hit.
I can recall that afternoon vividly from the time the First Dogwatchmen went to tea at 1545.
"Pass the tea Taff', I poured a cup and quickly drank it down, "Time to go on watch Sam, don't hang about", 'Spoff' Berry, Killick Of The Mess, 9 mess, Fo'c's'le Division, called and I grabbed my cap and followed him up the ladder.
The Fleet was cruising in the eastern Mediterranean, three battleships, Q.E., Valiant and ourselves, with attendant destroyers. Just after 4 o'clock on a calm Mediterranean afternoon, (the Fleet were working staggered watches so that 'Jerry' would not catch us napping and Barham changed at a quarter past the hour), the Afternoon Watch were 'closed up' at their stations.
As we arrived at our station we relieved our opposite number, were quickly briefed, and the 'oppo' stood down. We carried out the usual drills before settling down at the rear of the gun, leaving one of our crew to man the headphones, awaiting orders.
The time 4.19, a sudden violent explosion, the ship listed sharply to starboard and then rolled back to port. "Close up" shouted Spoff Berry, like me, he must have thought that our 15" guns bad opened up for some inexplicable reason. We closed up at our stations rapidly but quickly realised that we had been hit as this mighty battle waggon listed more and more to port.
I saw the pandemonium building up outside our casement as men rushed up from the messdecks and crowded around the main ladder to the upperdeck, they were jam-packed between a large armoured door halfway along the main deck and that particular ladder. "Fall out and get out" yelled Spoff, the gun's crew joined the mass of men desperately trying to make their way to the ladder. I saw "Taff" Clements look at the melee, shrug his shoulders and go back to the gun.
Directly opposite our gun was the ship's galley, it took up the whole midship area between the port and starboard No 2 and No 3 guns. A door at each side allowed passage between the two batteries. I saw a chance of getting to the starboard and therefore higher side of the rapidly capsizing ship, it was a dangerous move as the ship was now at an angle of 25 to 30 degrees.
The galley deck was tiled and hot greasy food and water was sloshing down the sloping deck. Fortunately overhead rails were within my reach and I was able to haul myself hand over hand up and across the galley and clamber out of the starboard door onto the main deck in the Marine's Battery.
Looking aft I saw that the armoured door was open and there was a large queue of men at the ladder to the upper deck and fresh air. On this side of the ship, unlike the port side, there was another ladder between me and the main ladder, which leads to a "fiat" or corridor in which the ships' bakery and flour store was situated. The chances were that the only door which led onto the upper deck from that flat would be closed and would be virtually impossible to open with the ship at such an angle. I started to join the queue to the main ladder.
Suddenly one officer (I think it was the Padre) blocked the way and shouted that a motor boat had broken free of it's chocks and had jammed across the hatch, it had cracked down on top of the ladder, crushing the men just climbing out No time for second thoughts, the bakery flat was just opposite me, so up I went with half a dozen or so following me, mercifully the door on the deck was open and we were able to crawl up the deck and on to the ship's side. I grabbed a guardrail and hauled myself over, I wasn't clear yet because over the side of the upper deck meant I was now standing outside the starboard 6" battery.
In front of me was the Glacis, a deck outside the gun battery which was now a 6 foot sheer wall between me and the ship's side. I wasn't alone, the whole side seemed to be swarming with men, some trapped as I was, others both fore and aft of the Glacis. As I watched, I saw men diving off the ship's side only to hit the barnacled bottom as it came up to meet them, due to the capsizing of the ship. I removed my shoes and waited for what seemed an eternity, but was really just a few seconds. Suddenly I saw a tremendous flash and the whole after section seemed to blossom outwards, in a split second I saw men and metal hurtling into space, and then I too was flying. It happened so quickly, one moment in space, the next I was under water, going down, down, down.
My lungs were bursting, "This is it" I thought, surprisingly calm, I had heard of 'La panoramie ce la vie passee' and now I had experienced it. I could hold my breath no longer and opened my mouth, expecting to take in water, amazingly it was air. I must have been in the wave caused by the ship sinking and been sucked down round and up again.
Inky blackness! I rubbed my eyes, "My God" I thought "I'm blind", I couldn't imagine going through life sightless, I began to panic for the first time. Then gradually the blackness began to clear and I could see vague shapes, I then realised that the blackness was caused by oily smoke, coupled with the fuel oil which covered my face and head.
Through the gloom a figure appeared close by, I called to him, no answer so I swam towards him, his head was bowed and I saw that he was dead, held up by his inflated lifebelt I turned and swam away and he followed, 1 swam faster but he kept coming. It took me a while to realise that I was swimming through the oil, inches thick and anything caught in my wake followed me. A ghostly spectacle and very frightening as other bodies and debris joined in, I soon saw, however, that if I used a gentle stroke, the oil was not so disturbed and closed in behind me more quickly. The pall of smoke gradually cleared and I could see heads bobbing all around the area, the oil seemed to cover the sea from horizon to horizon, but in the distance I could see two Carley Floats and swain towards them.
Coming closer I could see they were crammed with survivors and others clinging to the ropes around the sides.
In one of the floats I heard a voice trying to raise morale and enough enthusiasm in others to sing "There'll always be an England", it was a forlorn hope to get many of those shocked and dispirited men to sing.
I learnt afterwards that the hopeful choirmaster was none other than the Admiral, H.D. Pridham-Whipple. Suddenly, ahead I saw a destroyer steam up and stop, maybe half a mile away, I saw them lower a whaler as I swam towards the ship, the whaler pulled towards us picking up survivors as it reached them. I heard a voice to my right call out "Give us a hand mate, I think my legs are broken". A chance to prove the value of the Royal Society Bronze Medal I had earned in the swimming baths at 'Ganges'.
I took the man in tow, got him to the whaler and called across for them to take him from me, as they pulled him onboard, I saw to my horror, that the lower part of both legs were missing. "Are you OK"? asked the Cox'n, "Can you make it to the ship"? "Yes I'm airight Jack". I swam on towards the destroyer, an eternity later I arrived alongside and slowly hauled myself up the scrambling net which had been lowered over the side for us survivors.
Thankfully I climbed onto the deck of EMS Hotspur, it was 1845 hrs, but the time had passed so quickly, it was hard to believe that I had been in the water nearly 2 1/2 hours. HOTSPUR! how many times I had been forbidden to read my favourite "Blood and Thunder" as a small boy, "that book will be the death of you!" my mother used to warn me. Oh well! Parents aren't always right.
I have always thought that the Good Lord must have been on my side or had other plans for me, as I appeared to have been in an impossible escape position. I am sure that both he and my guardian angel guided me in the way to get out of that stricken ship. It was some time later that I learnt that the submarine, U331, commanded by Lt Von Teisenhausen, had actually been detected by Asdic (Sonar) operator on HMS JERVIS, who lost the echo by cutting in the wrong direction, and being told to disregard by the O.O.W.
Hotspur picked up most of the survivors, HMS Nizam picked up the remainder, and we headed back to Alexandria. An air attack by Italian high level bombers on the way back didn't help our unsteady nerves. ON EMS Resource we were given baths, medicals, survivors kits and de-briefing before being sent to HMS SPHINX Sidi Bishr just outside Alex. We were under canvas and life was primitive for sailors, OK for pongos who were used to that sort of existence.
I got disentry and was ambulanced to 64th General Hospital where I suffered for some weeks. The oil fuel and tiny bits of shrapnel embedded in my body didn't help, I lost a lot of weight, going down to 5 stone, and felt miserable. When I recovered from disentry, I was sent to El Arish in Palestine to recuperate and enjoyed two weeks of swimming, horse riding and cricket.
An Australian touring side came to visit us and I had the pleasure of playing against the Australian Test Captain, Lindsay Hassett. Back in Alex, I was sent to EMS Canopus to do a Gunlayer 3rd Class course which I successfully completed and expected to be sent to a ship in the Eastern Med. I was very agreeably surprised when my draft came through to travel back to Port Suez and with 140 other sailors, joined SS Louis Pasteur, a French liner being used as a trooper.
She was loaded with 2000 German prisoners of war captured in North Africa and bound for prison camps in South Africa.
They were guarded by South African soldiers, fortunately for us. Early one morning as we sailed down the East African coast, we were aroused and armed with rifles. The Germans were awakened and herded on to the fo'c's'le deck, separated from their officers who we marched to the after lounge where they were locked in and placed under guard. With the soldiers left to guard the prisoners for'ward, we sailors were sent down to the prisoner's quarters to search for weapons. It transpired that one of the South African sentrys had overheard some prisoners plotting to take the ship, he could understand German and he iminediatley reported the fact to his superior officer.
We were amazed at the collection of weapons we found, spoons and forks flattened out and sharpened, strips of wood shaved from tables and stools, sharpened and the points burnt, to harden them.
We even found some automatic pistols which had somehow been smuggled aboard. It was a very close shave and we were grateful for the soldier who was able to understand what the plotters were up to.
Thankfully we arrived at Durban without further excitment and disembarked the prisoners, I was seen on Pathe News, armed with a Sten Gun, at the foot of the gangway as the prisoners were marched away.
We were then sent to HMS AssegaiI camp outside Durban, to await transport home whilst the Pasteur returned to Egypt.
Our homeward journey on the SS Dominion Monarch was uneventful and we arrived safely in the Clyde in March 1942. A train took me home to Gravesend and I set out on foot for home. I reached the top of The Avenue and started down towards home. Coming up the road in the opposite direction I saw my mother and at the same moment she recognised me, we ran towards each other and met outside my grandmother's house.
We hugged each other and went into Granny Lane's, who was now bed-ridden, and delighted to see us.
We celebrated in the usual fashion and Mum told me of the anxiety the family had suffered since hearing that the Barham had been lost. The loss was not made known to the public until January 25th, two months after the sinking, because the enemy were not sure that the ship had sunk or which ship it was.
My name did not appear on the survivors list as, when names 13 were being taken on the Hotspur, I was giving first aid treatment to a Maltese steward who had most of his buttocks blown away, it was a horrible mess and I was given only some cotton waste and soapy water to do the job.
A few of us who had done a bit of first aid had volunteered to help the greatly overworked sick bay staff of Hotspur, of which there were only a Doctor and two tiffles.
My parents had eventually contacted Welfare at Chatham, who had sent a signal to C in C Med's office, asking for news of my fate, confirmation that I had survived had reached them only a few days before I arrived home."
| last updated:
13 July 2013