- Buckley, Lieutenant N.W. AM RNVR
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A short account of some wartime experiences – Awarded Second Prize, Naval Officers Club Literary Prize 2001
THE OUTBREAK OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR in September 1939 caught most people, including me, by surprise. In July and August of that year I was on a driving holiday in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy and France, in company with a young Sydney doctor and a Canadian architect. Then, being of an enquiring mind, on 19 August I joined a students’ tour group on a Russian ship in the Thames Estuary, bound for Leningrad and Moscow.
The ship had not long left the Kiel Canal when radio news informed us of the signing by Germany and Russia of a Non-Aggression Pact and, on 3 September, having reached Moscow, we learnt that, following Germany’s attack on Poland, Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany. It took 23 days for us touring students to get back to England, via Finland, Sweden and Norway and on a Norwegian ship across the North Sea.
I was in the middle of a post-graduate law course at Cambridge University and, in view of the Phony War situation at that time, I decided to finish my course and then return to Melbourne and join the Australian Navy. But in June 1940, when the Germans had overrun France and caused French submission, and the British Army’s evacuation from France, without its armament, left Britain alone to fight, I went to Australia House in London to see whether I could join the Australian Navy from London, but the answer was a big “No, No”. So I returned to Cambridge and signed on for the Royal Navy.
My training as a “CW” (Commissioned and Warrant) naval rating started in September 1940 in HMS Collingwood and then HMS Victory. After four months training, with quite a lot of it disrupted by frequent air raids on the Portsmouth area, I was posted to a cruiser, HMS Manchester, which unexpectedly had to go into dry dock for repairs and I therefore was ordered back to Portsmouth.
Blessing in disguise
This interlude was a blessing in disguise because, during my absence, some of my fellow trainees were posted to HMS Hood and, with hindsight of her early demise, I am grateful not to have been one of those fellows sent to join her. In March 1941 I was ordered to go to Scapa Flow and join HMS King George V (KGV). This battleship was newly built and was the flagship of the Home Fleet, having on board the CinC, Admiral Tovey. She was of 35,000 tons, 700 feet (213m) long, had ten 14 inch (36cm) and sixteen 5.25 inch (13cm) guns and one seaplane. I served four and a half months in her.
What I remember most about her were her huge size, her convoy-covering journeys to and from Halifax in Canada (necessitated by the presence in the Atlantic of the German warships Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Admiral Scheer), acting as lookout in the crow’s nest of the high mainmast when the ship was rolling slowly but heavily, watching the huge 14 inch shells leave the forward guns during a practice shoot, and (last, but not least) the chase after, and sinking of, the German battleship Bismarck.
The Bismarck was of similar age, of 45,000 tons, 791 feet (241m) long, with eight 15 inch (38cm) and twelve 5.9 inch (15cm) guns, four aircraft, and 103 officers and 1962 crew.
Bismarck had been reported on 21 May 1941 to have left Bergen in Norway, headed for the Atlantic Ocean via the Denmark Strait, west of Iceland. The KGV was out of harbour engaged in gunnery practice when this news was received, and the Admiral ordered HMS Prince of Wales (a sister battleship), HMS Hood and two cruisers to chase and engage Bismarck.
Hood blows up
Next day, as soon as KGV had refuelled, it set sail westward from Scapa Flow to try to intercept Bismarck, in company with HMS Repulse, HMS Victorious (aircraft carrier), four cruisers and seven destroyers. Two days later (24 May) we learnt that Prince of Wales and Hood had met and engaged Bismarck but Hood had been hit at long range by Bismarck and had blown up (there being only three survivors). Prince of Wales was also seriously damaged, and had to withdraw.