War memories: marriage and return to Brighton
PUBLISHED: 15:16 08 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:31 20 February 2013
The third and final instalment of Geoffrey Holder-Jones' memoirs
Thirty nine steps. Well, it was rather more 69 steps, actually. Gladys and I had to climb four flights of steep stairs to get to our first flat in Compton Road, Brighton. But Im running ahead of myself. Standing on Brighton station at the end of my leave, marriage and our own home was a far off dream. I was depressed, uncertain whether I would ever even see Gladys again.
When I reached Aberdeen the city was a shambles; there had been some serious enemy air raids and a bomb had destroyed a merchantman close to our ship.
It was impossible to look, a dockyard worker told me, the flames were too hot.
But I found some comfort on Wastwater (HMS Wastwater, an anti-submarine armed whaler and Geoffreys first ship as a Sub Lieutenant). Our First Lieutenant Michael Thwaites was on board, a marvellous man who put me to rights. Our Captain John May joined the next day.
Four days later we were in Reykjavik with immediate orders to escort a small convoy round Icelands west coast to join a convoy on its way to Russia. The weather was vile.
It was December, with just five hours of daylight, and so cold that we had to bring all hands on deck to clear ice. Visibility was worse than poor. Was that a shadow to starboard, or a cliff, or the elderly merchantman, part of our convoy, which we had not seen for the last eight hours?
Wastwater was in Hvalfjrur when the fjord was struck by a great hurricane. Three ships were wrecked on the stony shore and staff at the RAF base literally had to hang onto their planes lest they be swept away. It was a terrifying night; it was the noise I most remember, the screeching and howling of the wind.
We spent Christmas Day in Reykjavik. The Captain finished our morning service with a prayer for absent family and friends. Amen, said our crew with one voice. Below, the mess deck was splendid: decorations of every kind, and for Christmas dinner the cook had excelled himself, finishing with a plum pudding laced with half a bottle of sherry. In accordance with naval custom, we three officers were mess men for the day.
I can see youre not used to this kind of work said our signalman, as for the second time I dropped a plate.
January bought astonishing news. Wastwater and 23 other ships of the anti-submarine escort force trawler squadron were ordered to sail for America. There would be no spring wedding. I was going to miss Gladys, a lot. But of course there was a silver lining none of us would miss the North Atlantic with its gales, cold and dangerous seas.
It was foggy in Long Island Sound when we heard the dreary moan of the light ships signal. As we approached New York things began to happen: a pilot vessel drew alongside and the pilot hopped on board.
Morning guys, Im here to help.
Then, as we neared Manhattan, the fog melted away and we were witness to one of the most extraordinary sights in the world: the great skyscrapers, the Empire State Building, the crowded anchorages. I had never seen anything like it. Ahead of us, Staten Island, our home for the next nine months.
Our ships had been sent to America to try and stop the carnage that German long-range U-boats had inflicted on allied shipping; over 300 ships sunk in three months on the American seaboard, unsustainable losses. The US Navy soon put us to work escorting convoys between New York and Delaware. We were horrified by the number of wrecks, ships that had been sunk in the previous months. I thought of the poor seamen below who would still be there food for the crabs.
We worked hard, and the German attack on the American coast was blunted. As for New York, when we had leave our hosts could not have been kinder. Say, are you from the old country? Come home and meet our folks.
After New York, Wastwater escorted a dry dock the size of an ocean liner to St Thomas in the West Indies, but thats another story.
In December I took over command of my own ship, HMS Baffin, stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was very proud but it was back to the frozen North and my God it was cold.
In the autumn of 1943, after two and a half years away from home, I was granted leave to return to the U.K. Arriving at Wallasey Docks I jumped ship. I rang Gladys. She wasnt there, but I told her mother I was on the way. My train was late. Twice it screamed in and out of Crewe Station, and I fell asleep. I woke with the old song running through my head:
Oh Mr Porter,
What shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham
And theyve sent me on to Crewe.
But it wasnt Crewe; it was Euston, and I was nearly home.
As I walked from Brighton Station to Moulsecoomb I was apprehensive. Gladys and I were to be married in three days. I had seen nothing of her or her family for over two years, but I need not have worried: Ethel, Gladys mum, was kindness itself.
The day of the wedding I waited nervously for Gladys to arrive. Preston Circus Fire Station had refused to give her leave from the night shift which didnt finish until 0800 on our wedding day.
At last the triumphal music. I looked round and there was Gladys. She looked so beautiful. Afterwards it was on to the Tatler for the reception, and that evening we left for London. I remember overhearing one of our guests: That was a right good do.
Better still, in London I had Gladys to myself. We were in love.
Our honeymoon and my leave over, I was appointed as an Auxiliary Naval Pilot responsible to the Kings Harbour Master at Portsmouth. The war was coming to an end but there were doodlebugs, the V2 rockets, Arnhem and other setbacks to contend with first.
In 1945 I was given another Command, HMS Guardsman, a great honour as she was cock ship of her squadron. We wondered if we might be sent to the Far East, but the atomic bomb put an end to that and in the spring of 1946, for the first time since leaving school, I had nothing to do.
Back in Brighton, I had booked myself on a teacher training course in September, but meanwhile there was nothing for it: I had to earn some money.
Walking along the seafront I saw a team of workers on the Palace Pier. Could you do with a spare hand? I asked the foreman. Its a dirty job and you will be working over water, he said.
Whats new, I thought, and took the job. Given a plank, a piece of rope and a hammer I began chipping rust and peeling paint with the best of them.
My next job was filling a temporary vacancy at the Portslade Approved School for Boys. I liked the boys. They were mischievous, would pinch anything, and taking them shopping on a Saturday afternoon in Portslade was a nightmare. But most had a great sense of humour and, given a bit of training, discipline and kindness they would have made good and brave shipmates.
In the meanwhile Gladys and I had bought that flat, the top floor of a house in Compton Road, Brighton. It was little more than an attic, with no bathroom, but we were happy and it was there that our first much-loved daughter Geraldine was born.
That autumn I began my teacher training course at Bognor and a new career began which finally took me to St Andrews School, Hove, where I was Headmaster for 21 years.
Ive got a lot to be thankful for. I am now 95. Old age has taken its toll, but through all these years Gladys has been at my side, helping me in so many ways and my two daughters Geraldine and Judy, have given us joy.
Geoffrey 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 Chuch 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.