Second extract from Geoffrey Holder-Jones memoirs of his service in the Second World War
PUBLISHED: 01:16 25 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:15 20 February 2013
Second extract from Geoffrey Holder-Jones memoirs of his service in the Second World War. Read about how he fell in love before facing the grim reality of war in the North Atlantic...
Loveand then war
In the second extract from his memoirs of his service in the Second World War, Geoffrey Holder-Jones tells us about how he fell in love before facing the grim reality of war in the North Atlantic.
I MUST tell you how I met Gladys. I was anxious to see Brighton, and most evenings there was a liberty bus which ran from the college to the town centre. There was a strict instruction that cadets must catch the return bus by 2300. Some places were out of bounds, and in particular a club at the bottom of West Street; we knew the reason why. Usually Bob (an ex-Customs Officer) and I hit the town together.
One evening we went to the Regent Ballroom and Picture House, near the clock tower where Boots now stands. While at the bar I was astonished to see that Bob was dancing with the best-looking girl in the ballroom. Youre far too good for him, I thought, and at the next excuse me I took over. It was not long before I had fallen in love with Gladys, but I didnt tell her, not right away.
As I neared the end of my training, the days flashed by, and it was a comfort that Gladys, God bless her, was living in Brighton, just over the hill. Then came my final interview with Captain Pelly RN, King Alfreds Commander. I passed and was made a Sub-Lieutenant. I was very proud of my new uniform made by Hope Brothers of Brighton.
Of course we had a party, but there was barely time to kiss Gladys goodbye before I was given a railway warrant with instructions to join HMS Wastwater, a converted Norwegian whaler, stationed in Reykjavik. I groaned another fishing boat.
It took eight days to get to Reykjavik, and my first impressions were hardly favourable; as far as I was concerned it was yet another port, cold and damp with an all-pervading smell of fish. But there were some surprises. Many of their girls were gorgeous, wearing silk stockings and hats made in England.
Alongside in Reykjavik Harbour Wastwater looked all right, a sturdy whaler with a Victorian gun on the forecastle and a row of depth charges on the stern. The ships paint was peeling, with numerous dents and scratches on the top sides, but that is how all our ships looked in the North Atlantic. I walked up the gangway. There was a lieutenant on the forecastle tall, dark-haired and well-dressed who I took to be the Captain. I drew myself to attention and saluted. Sub-Lieutenant Jones reporting for duty, Sir.
Follow me please, said the Captain, and took me below to the Seamens mess.I was horrified. There were 17 American sailors in the mess, all in a pitiful condition, some barely conscious, with their lower limbs frostbitten, white and deadly cold.
We picked up these men off Greenland on our last patrol, explained the Captain. They had been in a waterlogged boat for some 10 days and are lucky to be alive. What are we to do?
Have you washed their limbs with fresh water? I asked. Of course, snarled the Captain, and now were out of fresh water.
Suddenly there was then a shout from the upper deck: Medical officer on board, Sir.
So who the hell are you? demanded the Captain.
I have come aboard for training, Sir.
Then get out of my sight.
What a welcome. Even today I cannot get those poor sailors out of my mind. All but one had to have their legs amputated.
Despite the horror of my arrival I soon realised that Wastwater was an efficient and well run ship, but there was a serious problem.
Our Captain, Lt Jackson RNR, hated his first Lieutenant. That problem would get worse.
Within three days I was on my first patrol. Wastwater had been ordered to escort two American freighters from Iceland to the North Cape. A Russian destroyer would then escort them onward to Murmansk.
The next night we were treated to a remarkable display: the Northern Lights, coloured bands of light from horizon to horizon and sometimes dancing green men, mysterious and dramatic. It was on the voyage back to Iceland that I experienced my first North Atlantic gale. It was spectacular and frightening.
Winds of over 100 miles an hour destroyed our mast. Two depth charges got loose on the upper deck. The fishermen in our crew handled the situation with extraordinary speed and skill, without them God knows what would have happened to us.
I stood the middle watch. I was cold and my teeth were chattering but by 0200, despite the great waves still breaking over our bows, we sensed the worst was over. Our crew were remarkably cheerful. Well, after all, we had survived the tempest and nobody had been lost. A mug of cocoa and some wet sandwiches had never tasted so good.
Wastwater was never in harbour for more than a few days, and as soon as our mast had been repaired we were sent to Cape Farewell, the tip of Greenland, to look for survivors not a job that any of us fancied.
On leaving Reykjavik we passed HMS Hood, anchored in Hvalfjord. She looked marvellous. Whats she doing here, I wonder? said our coxswain. She should be in Scapa.
Four days later the Hood was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck. It was shocking news that affected every one of us.
Our jobs changed with bewildering frequency, one day we were part of a convoy screen escorting a tanker to Spitzbergen, another, we were delivering stores and then in August we lost our Captain but captured a submarine. Our ship laying in Scapa, the Captain returned drunk and tried to shoot our First Lieutenant.
Mercifully, no-one was hurt but later Jackson was court-martialled and dismissed from his ship. As a counterbalance to this domestic drama, Wastwater was then involved in the capture of the German submarine U570. What a triumph!
Churchill, in his History of the Second World War remarked that this event was unique in the Battle of the Atlantic. In November Wastwater was ordered to Aberdeen for a boiler clean and the ships company was granted seven days leave.
As soon as we docked I caught the train to London where, despite the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe, we arrived at Euston bang on time. It was so very good to see Gladys, and on our first evening together we decided to marry.
Ill make the arrangements for your next leave, she said. That should be in May, I told her. She sighed and kissed me. A spring wedding!
If I get through the winter, I thought, remembering the cold seas, the dark, and the screech of enemy bombers.
Next month: Manhattan, the wedding and life after war.
DISTINGUISHED SERVICEGeoffrey Holder-Jones won the Distinguished Service Medal for his bravery in the Second World War during which he captained six ships. After the war he became a teacher and spent 22 years as headmaster of St Andrews Church of England School in Hove.
Signalman Jones by Tim Parker, based on the recollections of Geoffrey Holder-Jones, is published by Seafarer Books at 9.95.