Wartime memories

PUBLISHED: 00:16 23 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:03 20 February 2013

Wartime memories

Wartime memories

Geoffrey Holder-Jones won the Distinguished Service Medal for his bravery in World War Two. After the war he became a teacher and spent 22 years as headmaster of St Andrew's Church of England School in Hove. He shares his adventures here

I regard myself as a Sussex man and indeed, having lived in Sussex for close on 70 years, I should qualify. It was in the winter of 1941 that I first came to the county. I was driven from Portsmouth to Lancing in a Royal Navy service bus with a flapping gas bag on the roof. I was a signalman in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and my fellow ratings and I were to start our training to become officers.
It was the 2nd of January on a bitterly cold night that our bus laboured up the hill to Lancing College. There was snow in the air and out of the darkness a great chapel loomed above us. I had never seen anything like it. The bus shuddered to a halt; we had arrived, but the place seemed deserted. Finally a duty officer appeared. You will be shown you to your dormitory Divisions are at 0800. Smarten up and dont be late!

Freezing dormitory
Trying to get to sleep on an iron bed in a freezing dormitory, I wondered at the Navy sending us to such a place.
The following morning the College was transformed. A good breakfast was followed by Divisions, a parade on the College quadrangle of some two hundred men. I was amazed where had they all come from? Divisions, I soon learnt, could be a nerve-wracking experience. Each morning under the eagle eye of Chief Petty Officer Vass, a gunner, a different cadet took charge. On one occasion, overcome by the experience, the cadet in charge failed to give the final command to prevent his men marching off the parade ground. Say something lad, even if its only goodbye.
Lancing College school was a school no longer, it was now HMS King Alfred, a stone frigate, as the Navy called its shore stations. The Navy had also commandeered Mowden School, the King Alfred Leisure Centre, the St Catherines Lodge Hotel and other buildings. King Alfred would train over 22,000 men and women to become officers in just three short months. We were an extraordinary mixture, some with little sea experience, and the majority were from the lower deck. In those days there was still a huge divide between officers and men. It will never work, said some, but it did. It was a social experiment on a grand scale.
Before I go any further Id better tell you how I came to be on that bus. Ill begin at the beginning and thats a hell of a time ago. I was born in Liverpool in 1915, the youngest son of a draper. It was the second year of the First World War. King George V was King of England and his cousin was Kaiser of Germany.

HMS Renown
Liverpool in those days was still one of the greatest cities in the world, but it suffered grievously between the wars. Spanish Flu took its toll, and then came a slow decline, downwards into the great Depression of the 1930s. Men on hunger marches - I still remember their haggard and hopeless faces - riots and disorder. As for me, at my fathers bidding, I was working with him as a draper, miserable and rather lonely.
It was joining the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve that changed my life, giving it purpose and interest. What a thrill it was when I first went to sea in a famous World War I battle cruiser, HMS Renown. The spectacular night shoot, when the ship shook itself like a dog after every salvo. Close-quarter manoeuvring with ships of a similar size, requiring nerves of steel from the captain. And the strange occasion when a lone fiddler played as the ships great anchor was raised by hand.

Ark Royal
The years slipped by and I continued my Signalmans training, when suddenly in Liverpool all the shipyards had full order books. I witnessed the launch of two great ships, the Ark Royal and the battleship Prince of Wales. There was tremendous nationalism and enthusiasm from great crowds. We would beat the Hun. It was inconceivable then that these two great ships would be sunk by our enemies.
Then War, and I was drafted as a Signalman to a cruiser, HMS Adventure. In November 1939 I nearly lost my life. Asleep when a mine exploded, I woke in inky darkness. There were many casualties and lives lost, and it was a minor miracle that the Adventure made it back to harbour.
My wounds were minor, and after survivors leave and a Christmas at home I was drafted to Scapa Flow and to a Minesweeper, HMS Tritonia. The Skipper, Danny Smith, was an extraordinary and likable man, born to command. Barely five feet tall, he had a herring box installed on the bridge so he could see what was going on. I was involved in making a German magnetic mine safe, and it was Danny, God bless him, who not only recommended me for the DSM but also for Officer training. And so it was that I caught that bus to Lancing.
The training at King Alfred was excellent but at times it was for real. Brighton in 1941 was to some extent on the front line. German bombers, failing to find their target, used the town as a dumping ground, sometimes causing heavy loss of life. One day during boat drill on Shoreham Harbour, a German plane swooping down Aldrington Basin sprayed a few bullets. Damn near hit me, said the Petty Officer in charge.

Meeting the King
In March I was given two days leave to go to London and meet the King at Buckingham Palace. He was to award me my Distinguished Service Medal, a great honour. Waiting in the corridor to enter the ballroom where the investiture was to be held, I asked if there was a toilet. Certainly sir, relied a polite and smart attendant, who showed me to a very long narrow room at the end of which there was just one pink toilet with a chain hanging from a high ceiling. In the ballroom a band played and the King stood on a dais. I was given my instructions.
When you approach the King you stop and bow. He will shake you by the hand. He may talk to you before giving you your medal. You then walk three paces backwards and bow, but no more. We dont want you to fall off the dais.
I have to tell you that the King did talk to me, and very nicely. There was no trace of his stammer.

Signalman Jones by Tim Parker, based on the recollections of Geoffrey Holder-Jones, is published by Seafarer Books at 9.95.

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