- Worledge, Ray
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
You could say it all began when I pounded on the desk of the elderly Commander at the Admiralty. I was a young officer with a great grievance. Looking back, I can now see that I was also a spoilt young brat. I was a Sub- Lieutenant, with six months still to wait for my second stripe.
My grievance was that two brand new MLs had been taken from me, after I had gone through all the bother of standing by the building and getting them commissioned. Not one, but two, in succession. The first was ML 130, nicely built by Curtis at Looe in Cornwall. She was commandeered by a Royal Navy two- striper, whose own boat had been bombed on the building slip. He was in a hurry to take a flotilla to the Med. So he grabbed ML 130, which did sterling service until being sunk in a night action off Malta.
My second loss was ML 124. Again I had stood by the building, this time at Tarbert in Argyllshire, where they spoke an almost foreign language but their kindness made up for many deficiencies. ML 124 could best be described as rough but honest. Still, I felt that I could learn to love her, and by the time we got down to Weymouth the sailor’s chemistry was working. But before we had finished working-up Fate dealt its second cruel blow: I was told that 124 would be transferred to the Royal Norwegian Navy, and that they could manage nicely without me. The very courteous Norwegian officers arrived and soon demonstrated that they were far better sailors than I was. There was a handing-over ceremony at Portland attended by much gold lace, mainly British, all intent on meeting King Haakon and Crown Prince Olaf. In this regard I had the inside running. The father of my flotilla Senior Officer had been Private Secretary to Queen Maud of Norway, and the SO was well known to the Norwegian royals, who greeted him accordingly and were gracious to me. I have often suspected that this connection explained the donation of a ship from our flotilla. Crown Prince Olaf was kind enough to commiserate with me. After all, he was a sailor himself. King Haakon was interested to hear that I had served in the Norwegian campaign. He drew me out, listening patiently to my replies.
But back to the Admiralty. The elderly Commander heard me out before handing me a list of MLs nearing completion and telling me to take my pick. He also added gently that anyone else would have given me a severe ticking-off and the worst appointment at his disposal. He was probably right.
Looking at the list, my eye was caught by ML 220, nearing completion at Tough Brothers, Teddington. Even in Australia I had read about Tough’s in yachting magazines. Teddington is at the head of navigation of the Thames. The idea of having a ship built in London was appealing. Then I saw that she was being fitted for special service. That clinched it.
Arriving at the yard I found 220 well advanced. She was being fitted out as the first ML to carry mines. Already on the scene was the Telegraphist, H. G. Brunsdon. He was the best Tel. I ever had. ML 220 survived the War, in spite of running on the Calvados Rocks during the invasion, and Harry served in her throughout, which must be close to a record for these little ships. We are still in contact.
Next arrival was Sub Lieutenant Ted Burnham RNR, my Number One. A professional sailor, Ted came from the British India Company, had been a Worcester cadet and was about ready to sit for his Master’s ticket. He had even less seniority than I, but in theory RNR took precedence over RNVR. In all matters nautical he left me for dead, as one would expect.
Completion of ML 220 did not take long, in spite of the fact that I asked for many little extras. After standing by the building of two ships and snooping around many more, I had a notebook full of small modifications. Fortunately for me, Saccone & Speed, the wine and spirit merchants who kept wardroom bars supplied as far as Hong Kong, sent us a good supply of duty-free liquor, which worked wonders with the yard foremen. Someone at S&S had apparently got the impression that we were already a commissioned ship. I wonder how that happened? We finally left
Teddington, I still believe, the smartest ML ever built. All appropriate woodwork below was French polished, such necessities as bookshelves for Penguins (still sixpence each) abounded, while the bridge had much varnish and beautiful teak gratings. Wardroom curtains, actually intended for ML 130, had finally arrived from Australia. The wardroom hatchway was beautifully varnished, but in the engine-room there was only high-gloss enamel. One had to draw the line somewhere. The foremen were obviously sorry to see us depart. If only we had stayed longer even more could have been done to civilise the ship and slake the thirsts of the willing craftsmen. The Managing Director of Tough’s came from London to pay us his first and only visit. He looked around muttering. We could read his thoughts, and it later came as no surprise to learn that the yard management had declared a total ban on such frills. As if we cared.
We left Teddington with the mast secured along one guard-rail, making us look quite scruffy. The river pilot was none other than Ted Phelps, the King’s Bargemaster. I had expected a ceremonial figure, but he arrived wearing roughish civilian clothes topped by a cloth cap. He really could handle a ship, as he proved by taking the wheel himself down in the wheelhouse. I stood on the bridge, hoping that all spectators would consider me in charge. The trip down river was magic. Some of the sights I recognised, others were pointed out to me by the best guides one could have wished for, and I had no responsibility. During a brief stop at the Tower Pier some of the builders’ people went ashore, others staying with us to Greenwich. There was no need for the lifting spans of the Tower Bridge to be raised for us. At Greenwich, at a pier near where Cutty Sark is now in a dry dock, the remaining builders’ staff stepped our mast before going home by train. They had thrust many forms at me, all of which I dutifully signed. What the forms said I never bothered to ask; ML 220 was now mine, and I was glad to see them go.
The next day we went via Sheerness to Chatham, where we fitted armament and commissioned HMML 220. We were now legally entitled to our duty-free liquor and tobacco, which somehow didn’t taste nearly as good as it had for the previous three weeks. Then we joined the escort for a six-knot westbound Channel convoy, my sailing orders being issued under the authority of C-in-C The Nore, none other than Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax. I wondered what his Dartmouth term-mates called him. Escorting the convoy involved going dead slow on one engine which we alternated each half-hour. Passing our future base at Dover took an age as we stemmed the flood tide. It was pitch black, as convoys ran the gauntlet by night. I had a prickly feeling, with Dover a mile to starboard and the enemy eighteen miles to port. Later we were to get used to that. Approaching the Isle of Wight we left the convoy, taking the opportunity to run the engines at good speed as we entered the Solent.
We were bound for HMS Vemon, the Navy’s torpedo and mine headquarters. For several days the boffins played with 220, testing our mine chutes and having us run endlessly up and down a calibrating range in Stokes Bay. No doubt it meant something to them. Portsmouth was raided most nights. The drill was for many of the ships in port to anchor at night in the Solent. A couple of times I went to the Isle of Wight’s Ryde Pier to let some of the lads go to the pictures, anchoring when they returned aboard. In this my Coxswain, a permanent Navy PO called Pat Traynor, was a bad influence on me. He knew all the tricks, and was happy to pass them on, as long as I took the risk of any official displeasure.
Next off we went to Dover, by then a legendary front-line town. The morale of the inhabitants was high, and it soared every time they saw themselves featured on the newsreels. Which was often. There was indeed much to see. The weather was perfect, giving us a great view of the contrails following the invisible aircraft fighting out the Battle of Britain. We cheered as flaming aircraft fell, never thinking that some might be ours. Lower down, pairs of Messerschmitts would strafe the barrage balloons, the legend being that new pilots were required to earn their spurs thus. At night bombers droned over each way. Dover was just within range of the big guns on Gris Nez, which often fired at passing convoys but never seemed to do much damage. All this was a bit daunting to newcomers, but we soon absorbed the nonchalance of the locals. If the little old ladies refused to let such nonsense spoil their shopping excursions, how could we dare to show concern ourselves? The newsreels had set such a standard that one would have had to be very brave to be a coward. Or to complain. Never before or since have I been in such a stimulating environment.
Our base was in the Submarine Basin at the eastern end of the harbour. No submarines – nothing but the rusting hulk of the half-sunken destroyer Codrington. At the western end of the harbour the Lord Warden Hotel was the base for two flotillas of MTBs. The dashing MTB types despised us. We thought them show-offs. The only other craft in Dover’s once-busy harbour were a few drifters and air-sea rescue craft. The Naval headquarters was partly underground, in what had been storage space used by the adjacent Unwin’s Brewery. The brewery still functioned, the ventilation was poor, so the staff worked in a distinctly heady environment. The Admiral in command – referred to as ‘Vice Admiral Dover’, or VAD – was Vice Admiral Ramsay. He was a wonderful chap, and nobody who had served under him was surprised when he was later given command of the naval side of the Normandy landings.
Still a Sub-Lieutenant, I proceeded to form the 50th Special Service Flotilla, slightly handicapped because it consisted of only one boat. A week later my second boat – an A Type – turned up, closely followed by another A, and we were in business. The ‘Special Service’ label is interesting. At that time the Navy had only about a dozen flotillas of MLs, so the high flotilla number allocated to us, plus the ‘special service’ title, made us, shall we say, rather special. It also helped to improve our financial position considerably, as it got us the extra pay given to such people as submariners. Being RANVR, I drew the RAN pay scale, which was 25% more than the RN, reflecting the relationship between the sterling and Australian pounds. But I was paid the Australian rate in sterling, plus hard-lying money, plus command allowance, all at the special service rate. It was too good to last. After only a few months the ‘special service’ tag was dropped, and with it the special service pay, but the pay package still remained reasonably good.
So we began training, first by day, then by night, concentrating on steaming in very close order and navigating to the nearest yard. We fitted echo sounders (the first in MLs), Chernikeef logs, taut-wire distance measuring gear, CSA smoke generators, and engine revolution telegraphs calibrated in steps of 50rpm that tested the nerves of those on the throttles. No RDF – it had not yet arrived for such small craft. It was my job to devise the tactics and write a little manual. The essential elements were to get to the right spot keeping close together at all times. The weather was beautiful. The sea was so smooth that on our night exercises we were apt to become disoriented. Sometimes it appeared that we were steaming up quite a slope; sometimes we were going downhill. The illusion persisted, no matter how hard one tried to dismiss it. Strain and fatigue may have contributed. A snag was that the A and B Types of ML were surprisingly incompatible in company. It was annoying that the triple-screw A Type was considerably faster, while its turning circle was much greater. The hard-chine A boats felt stiffer when fully loaded, compared with the easy roll of the B Type.
The Chief of Staff, Commander F. J. Walker, who later became a famous U- Boat killer, grilled us on our navigation, taking no time at all to rate us in the kindergarten class. The answer was to appoint a navigator for mine laying trips, in the shape of Lieutenant Henry Grattan RN, Hydrographer on the staff of Vice Admiral Dover. So it was that we were to set out on our first lay with an RNR Sub Number One, a Lieutenant RN as Navigator, and an RANVR Sub in overall command. It was a blow to the Navy’s traditional rule of seniority, but we all managed.
The first lay was a total anti-climax. We loaded our mines straight after lunch, went out to a buoy for compass adjustment, and returned to the Submarine Basin to await sailing time. Three boats laid a total of 18 mines in the Zuydecote Pass, just east of Gris Nez. Vice Admiral Ramsay came down to see us berth on return in the morning and stayed aboard for breakfast. After the next operation the Admiral greeted us again, but insisted on taking Grattan and me back to breakfast up in the Castle, to the disappointment of my cook, who took great pride in his sausages and bacon, floating in neat Worcester sauce, and cradled in raw onion.
The mines were the magnetic variety, 8ft long by 21in in diameter, with a charge of 750lbs of Amatol. They were almost human. A feature called ‘period delay mechanism’ made it possible to set each mine to activate or de-activate itself for predetermined periods of time, and to finally render itself safe if desired. ‘Movement delay’ could be set so that one mine in a string would explode when a ship passed over it. As the enemy would respond by sweeping the channel, the other mines were set to disregard several subsequent triggerings. Then one hoped that the enemy would declare the channel clear, our mines would return to readiness, and catch the first ship to use the channel. That was the theory, anyway. We had fun trying to predict the enemy’s reasoning. Rightly or wrongly, we felt that the mines should not be laid in a straight line, so before an operation we spent much time plotting a pattern of studied disorder. Here we ran into trouble: the turning circles of the A and B Types were so different that my B Type in the lead could not use too much rudder. I should explain that we kept very close order, having found that it is almost impossible to ram the stern of one’s next-ahead provided one keeps exactly in his wake.
Once they were laid, the mines needed a little time to adjust to the magnetism of the area, and especially to the direction in which they pointed when coming to rest on the seabed. They were accordingly fitted with soluble plugs, which kept the mechanism at safe until equilibrium was reached. The plugs were red or blue, depending on what time of initial settling- down was required, and this part of the works lay beneath a tiny rubber-sealed hatch, which was removed just before laying the mines. If the soluble plugs were to do their job, they obviously had to be kept dry until the laying began. That should have been obvious, but we had to learn it the hard way the first time we did a lay in fairly rough weather. Some of the little hatches had not been well secured, and the plugs began to dissolve en route. The result was that several mines went up spontaneously quite soon after they hit the bottom, frightening us all out of our wits. That called for another paragraph in the little mine-laying manual that I had begun to write during our initial trials in the Solent.
Word soon reached us that several of our mines had scored ‘hits’. Aircraft reported at least one fresh wreck, and intelligence suggested that other ships had been damaged. What had begun as a minor experiment was being up-graded to a worthwhile activity. We had also been given an exciting sideline: there were several trips to France, landing or picking up agents. Landing our passengers by rubber boat was surprisingly routine, but the two pick-ups we made were somewhat nerve-racking, as a reception committee was a possibility. The usual spot was a village called Ambleteuse. I still have no idea what the place looks like, as a resolve to go back after the War was never fulfilled. Another task was to survey the channels close to the French coast, to see whether the enemy had shifted any buoys, or laid new ones. Nothing was found to be changed, no doubt to the relief of the Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office. In all our mine-laying and other excursions to the coast of occupied France we never had a shot fired at us, although on more than one occasion we listened to the shells of the long-range guns passing far above.
In August 1941 VAD sent for me to break the news that the flotilla would be expanded to eight or ten boats of the A Type, with a Lieutenant-Commander as Senior Officer. This coincided with the arrival of my second stripe, as by now I had served the two-and-a-half years as a Subbie obligatory for one of my tender years. Even so I was junior to most people given command of MLs, and certainly junior to all the captains of the A Types that would soon be arriving. The Navy’s traditional rule of seniority was obviously becoming hard to flout. Admiral Ramsay went on to say that my B Type boat really wouldn’t fit with the As. A solution, he said, would be to give me an A. The alternative would be for me to be transferred to Great Yarmouth, where a boat with 220’s special equipment could be usefully employed. Which would I prefer? My answer required no thought. I couldn’t bear to be parted from the palatial ML 220, with its cosy anthracite stove in the Wardroom. I disliked the A Type boats. To clinch the question, the Wardroom curtains that had just arrived from Australia would not fit.
So at the end of 1941 I left the incredible atmosphere of Dover and went to the large Coastal Force base at Yarmouth. Some interesting jobs did come my way there, but life could never be quite the same. I later took the Wardroom curtains to the Mediterranean, where they found a watery grave in ML 352 during a commando raid on Tobruk.
During my service with the Royal Navy I met some fine senior officers. Vice Admiral Ramsay easily heads my list. He was respected by his peers and adored by the rest of us, right down to the newest OD with whom he stopped for a chat. His death in an aircraft accident not long after he had commanded the navy in the invasion of Normandy was a tragic loss. I have always been ashamed of leaving his command for what I now see as trivial personal reasons, and, worst of all, I expect he would have been disappointed with me.
1. Their Lordships have noted that some seventeen enemy ships have been sunk or damaged in the minefields laid during the last fifteen months by the minelaying motor launches working from Dover.
2. This represents a casualty rate of one ship for approximately every eight mines laid, which, having regard to the nature of the area, the comparative scarcity of suitable targets, and the indirect effects achieved. Their Lordships consider this a very satisfactory record.
3. This recognition of the fine work carried out by the minelaying motor launches is well deserved, and is to be promulgated to all concerned.
(Admiralty Letter MOD 2140/42 of 30/10/42.)