Letters galore

Hugh’s letters to Jim were so far about three months apart.  He wrote again in less than six weeks.

Tuesday

Oct 6th 1941

Dear Tim,

Arrived in this time and was pleasantly surprised to find no less than two letters with your now familiar handwriting on them.  One dated July fourteenth, the other August fifth – rather good time compared to others I have received.

There is no address but the log books show that Hugh was writing from Alexandria. Despite receiving two more letters from Jim, he still calls her Tim. Following on from Hugh’s comment at the end of his August letter, conditions on the Home Front had improved somewhat. He now comments on Jim’s summer activities.

In your first letter you were apparently enjoying a fine English summer week-end as only the English know how to spend a week-end. What visions this brings to mind! Beautiful, quiet, green countryside.  A soft familiar landscape where one feels at ease.  Just to read about it makes me slightly envious.  Just to be able to take the dog for a walk along a familiar country road, where one has been a hundred times, it is such a little thing but how worthwhile it seems now!  You mentioned in your second letter that you were enjoying a few days holiday at home. I’m sure it would be no hardship spending a holiday on the Wirral. Since joining the Navy I’ve met a few chaps who are familiar with that district and they have nothing but praise for it.

Maybe Jim scanned the pages of her new diary for material for the letter of July 14. The first entry, for Wednesday May 28, speaks of her regular task of taking the pup for a walk; but that night another spate of bombing raids shattered the peace. Nevertheless, Jim kept up her spirits, made it to the end of term and probably painted an optimistic picture for Hugh. On the day she wrote to him she went for a swim in the lake straight after school and then to King’s Hill.

July 14 The view was superb. The tide up, the hills blue in the distance and a warship lying off the mouth of the river. On the hill the bracken was green and the heather in bloom. There was a scent of pine, heather and sea. Further on, the willowherb waved gracefully in the tall grasses. I felt young and free again.

July 14 was the start of the last week of term for Jim who was eager for the holidays and still undecided about her future. The weekend marked the end of a spell of hot, dry weather with overnight thunderstorms.  Jim had done a lot of swimming in the previous weeks and now she enjoyed a cycle ride, delivering eggs to friends.  She spent the evenings reading, finishing The Long Weekend, starting European Spring by C. Bootle and continuing with Somerset Maugham. Her brother Guy called at the end of his leave and then the long-awaited break from school arrived.

Jim reading or writing on the lawn at Leighton Road, Neston, near Parkgate, Wirral

With her mother and sister away at the caravan, Jim enjoyed a time of relaxation, catching up on chores, meeting with friends and indulging in her favourite pastimes, swimming, walking Rum and reading. She borrowed Graves’ Goodbye to all that from the library and on the two days before her next letter to Hugh, read Sparkenbroke.

In her letter of August 5, Jim may have told Hugh about taking her mother the day before to see The Remarkable Mr Kipps. The film starred Michael Redgrave and was an adaptation of H G Wells’ novel. She writes of enjoying the ride home through green countryside with black and white, red and white cows peacefully browsing. I am not sure that a cowlike existence is not a good one. “What is this life if full of care We have no time to stand and stare.” She makes another quotation the following day whilst thinking about a new job – “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  This sentiment echoes the ethos of her school at West Kirby.  Its motto, Ad Metam Contendo,  ‘I strive for the goal’, is much in evidence in her diaries, indicating her determination to cope with whatever life throws at her.

Time changes

Following Hugh’s August letter, final preparations were being made to leave Malta at last. There was to be a six-day voyage back to Alexandria. It was not without incident.

On September 1, Brookes took over command. Euman was sick but still on board. The sub-lieutenant was also sick and a substitute joined the boat. As hands embarked stores on September 5, Lieutenant Norman came aboard and took control of the boat. Preparations were now well underway for leaving the island. Just a few more trials and they would be on their way. As daylight turned to dusk, they set off from Hamilton harbour and immediately dived to carry out a dummy attack on Gloxinia, one of the escorting corvettes. The exercise was repeated at 1830 and involved alternating between diving and surfacing. On constant watch for enemy aircraft as well as ships, Brookes took a zigzag route. The crew of Osiris regularly checked their position with ‘morning and evening stars’ and advanced their clocks one hour at 1700 on September 9.  Hugh makes a comment about clock-changing.

The chap who thought of the idea about putting the clock back another hour in the summertime is deserving of a medal in my opinion.  Sunshine in the summer is much better for one than cod-liver oil pills in the winter. One could hardly say that England is drenched in sunshine even in the best of summers. I have heard the arguments pro and con on this subject back home but personally I can’t see the argument at all. I suppose mothers with small boys who dislike going to bed in the daylight have about the best case against it. Farmers seem to dislike it but I could never find out why.

In this and other places in his letters, Hugh talks of ‘England’ which in those days was often synonymous with ‘Britain’.  Jim discovered that there were two time zones on her arrival in America but Hugh may have been thinking of his original home in Scotland. Because of the war, the clocks were not put back in October 1940. Putting them forward an hour in the spring of 1941 produced British Double Summer Time, two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. This was controversial for winter in the higher latitudes of Hugh’s childhood. He was now familiar with changing his watch as he travelled across time zones in the Mediterranean. Hugh was leaving an island that was about to become home for the 10th Submarine Flotilla, nicknamed ‘The Fighting Tenth’.  This grew out of the evacuation of Greece and Crete and led to eventual success in the relief of Malta.

Hugh on the move

The cargo on this occasion included fifty tons of destroyer ammunition.  Bizarrely, Osiris transported the stem-piece of a J-class destroyer and carried it strapped to the casing outside the boat. Norman’s apprehension at this made him insist on a static trim dive to test what would happen. This caused the boat to ‘hit the bottom of the harbour with startling rapidity and a great thump.’ According to John Wingate in his book The Fighting Tenth, Norman said:

So off we went, with old Osiris noisily banging and rattling towards Alex. She was also leaking petrol from the vents of the 2 partially petrol-filled ballast tanks and this left a lovely slick. To my horror, when only out from Malta 24 hours, I was detailed to approach Apollonia in Tripolitania to carry out a bombardment of an airfield. This we did and luckily with practically no retribution from the Italians.

The journey then continued, from the Libyan coast eastwards to Alexandria, arriving on September 12. The writer of the log book recorded 1114 Great Pass beacon abeam to std. Another ten minutes and they had passed through the boom, securing alongside HMS Medway at noon. This 8th patrol had been successful in delivering two officers and ten ratings from Malta to Alexandria together with over eight tons of miscellaneous stores and personal effects. A flurry of activity ensued as the boat was ‘unstored’. The crew were anxious to check what mail had arrived during the five weeks they had been away.

Nothing unusual has happened to me since last I wrote to you. You have probably read in the newspapers some of the goings on out here but events are never nearly as exciting at the place where they occur as they are from a distance. The last two months have been comparatively quiet but I expect when the winter sets in on Russia old Nasty will concentrate on the Near East.  Probably about Christmas, and you know how the English always look forward to Christmas. If we only had the Italians to worry about we would all be back in Blighty by this time.

When he mentioned the ‘goings on out here’ Hugh may have been referring to Crete, following the British withdrawal from Greece in May, with a lot of activity involving Italian ships and aircraft over the summer months. German troops dropped by parachute and the Allies fought back to retain the island. An added incentive was to control the waters accessing routes to Russia. Hugh anticipates an increase in hostilities in the Mediterranean. His prediction proved correct when Hitler withdrew from Russia in December because of adverse weather conditions.

Dangerous missions

There was a lot to do at the end of a patrol with the men working during the day on checking systems and preparing for the next voyage which was to begin on September 20, the 9th Mediterranean War Patrol for Osiris. Euman now left the boat and Lieutenant Russell Stanhope Brookes took full command with Vice Lieutenant Norman second-in-command on this Special Operation. Orders were to carry out the third part of an operation of which Tetrarch was dealing with the first two parts. This was to be in the area of Port Skutari on the south coast of Greece. As soon as they left Medway, exercises began, this time in conjunction with destroyers HMS Havock and HMS Jaguar.  Sadly, both were lost six months later. 

Leaving Alexandria harbour always entailed using a channel that had been mine-swept. During this trip several more faults appeared for Osiris. On the first day, the port engine clutch was found to be defective followed by the one on the other side three days later. At 6 a.m. on September 29, a gyro failure was reported.  A few days into the passage, Osiris received a signal from Tetrarch to say that the planned pick-up of troops would not after all take place. Osiris carried out some surveillance of the area but, with no signals evident, Brookes aborted the operation and returned to Alexandria.

According to the War Patrol Report, crew had noticed newly-constructed earthworks and men working in the vicinity of the signalling position and it was assumed that the soldiers had met with too much opposition and had either been captured or had been prevented from making the rendez-vous.  Osiris had kept constant watch on two fishing boats, one of which landed on the rocks near the earthworks which had the appearance of lookout posts.

As an Engine Room Artificer, Hugh was heavily involved in dealing with the engine problems.  This followed some days of avoiding enemy aircraft and it must have been a great relief when the Shoulder Buoy at Alexandria was sighted twenty-four hours later. On September 30, Osiris secured her port side to Medway and starboard to Thunderbolt.

Jim would have heard of Thunderbolt under its original name, Thetis. Her local newspaper would have reported the news that Thetis sailed out into Liverpool Bay on the morning of June 1, 1939, to carry out her final diving trials. A series of difficulties combined to result in failure to surface, with all but four men lost. The boat salvage company deemed the boat suitable for repair. The following year she was in service again as HMS Thunderbolt. She arrived in Gibraltar on July 1 and left for Alexandria on August 1 calling at Malta with cargo. On August 10 she left Malta and made a short patrol off Ras El Hilal, arriving at Alexandria on August 18. She left Alexandria to patrol the Gulf of Sirte and had successful encounters with enemy craft. On September 20 she returned to Alexandria  – as Osiris left.

As October dawned, Osiris was still alongside Thunderbolt but soon moved about the harbour for a few days working on torpedoes and cleaning. On October 4 she secured against Tetrarch with Medway on the starboard side.  The following day, Thunderbolt departed for her 8th patrol of the Aegean Sea. Tetrarch was to leave Alexandria on October 17 for Malta and then ordered to go to the US for a refit, departing on October 26. She never made it, failing to arrive at Gibraltar on November 2. This was in the future when Hugh wrote to Jim on the October 6 when the boat was being cleaned, ending the day at No. 12 Quay.

Healthy living?

In most of your letters you seem quite worried about my health and the food I get to eat. As far as my health goes it has never been better. It is so long since I’ve had a headache I’ve forgotten what it is like. I’m ‘disgustingly healthy’ as my mother would say. The food on board submarines is probably better than in any other branch of the Service.  I believe I could safely say that I am getting more to eat than the average person in England today.  Living on board is hardly like living in the Astoria, but since I never lived at the Astoria I probably feel more comfortable here.  I read in a newspaper article somewhere where the writer said it was surprising how comfortable submarine men could make themselves on board. I think he had it wrong. It’s surprising how much discomfort they can stand would be nearer the mark. Anyway one must have something to grumble about in the Navy or one wouldn’t be a sailor – one must stretch one’s imagination to call submarine men sailors.

You mentioned in your letter reading Charles Morgan’s ‘Sparkenbroke’. I read ‘The Voyage’ by the same author before leaving England and had intended sending it to you then but left home before I got a chance to mail it.  At present I’m reading Douglas Reed’s ‘Nemesis’. This is the biography of Otto Strasser and is rather interesting. The only other decent books I have read lately are Conrad’s ‘Chance’ and Thomas Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain. No one can write about the sea like Conrad. If you ever want to feel sea-sick read his ‘Typhoon’.

You can read about the Books for October 1941.

I am glad to hear that your brother has been promoted. I’ll bet you feel proud when he comes home on leave. It is also good to hear that England has had a comparatively quiet summer and I hope it continues.  I’m also glad to hear that you and your family are well and happy and not suffering too much from the food shortage.

Hugh was referring to Jim’s younger brother who, as a schoolteacher and single man, had joined the Territorial Army in May 1939, attached to the Cheshire Regiment. His Service Record shows that his service in the regular army dated from the outbreak of war.  A course with the Officer Training Corps at Aldershot led to his commission. This came through on 27thJuly, 1940, his wedding day. Jim was in America so missed the wedding. Guy’s rank was 2nd Lieutenant. He joined the Machine Gun Training Centre in Chester. In July 1941 he was transferred to Suffolk so Jim may have understood this to be a promotion.  At the beginning of 1942 he is described as a ‘War Substantive Lieutenant’, rising to Captain in 1943.

It is good of you to write to me and I always look forward to your letters with anticipation. It is one of the few real pleasures left out here. You probably won’t get this letter much before Christmas so I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Yours sincerely,

Hugh

On September 15, 1941, Jim had written in her diary, Wish some of the boys would write. Wonder if Hugh is alright.  Although she would have received Hugh’s August letter soon afterwards, Jim did not receive this one until the New Year. On January 20, 1942, she returned to her diary after a fortnight’s silence and wrote:  Have heard from Hugh Whyte. Letter posted on Oct. 6th.