Farewell, Alexandria

HMs/m TURBULENT  c/o G.P.O. London  July 21st 1942

Dear Jim,

My last letter to you was June the thirteenth – over a month ago. I’ve just finished the longest patrol I have yet been on.  It was not quite as successful as the last one but we didn’t come back empty handed so to speak.  On returning I found two airgraphs from you – one congratulating us on our late success which was very pleasing indeed. I didn’t expect any mail this time at all as we have had a bit of trouble here lately. Unfortunately I have lost all my gear and all the little personal things that I really valued.  Of course one has to accept a bit of bad luck once in a while and it could have been much worse.

Hugh had less than a fortnight recuperating from the last one before Turbulent left Alexandria for what turned out to be the last time. When he wrote to Jim on June the thirteenth, he had four more days before embarking on Turbulent’s 6th war patrol. Linton’s orders were to return to the Gulf of Sirte off the Libyan coast. On June 22, seventy miles south-west of Benghazi, Turbulent launched a torpedo attack on a German merchantman but made no hits. Being near to dawn, there was insufficient time to pursue this target but the ship dropped depth charges towards Turbulent. They missed. A similar incident occurred that evening and although the enemy depth charges missed again, they caused light bulbs to shatter. These actions must have taken a huge toll on the nerves of all concerned.

Frustration was the keyword for the rest of this patrol as time and again Turbulent’s ammunition failed to make contact with enemy vessels. This wasn’t for a lack of trying. Linton wisely backed off when he suspected they had been detected and was lucky not to be a victim of depth charges. There were also many days of no sightings with Turbulent diving during the day and surfacing at night. Just one action was successful when mild damage was caused on the morning of July 4 to a large enemy convoy. This unfortunately resulted in retaliatory attack from the destroyer Pegaso but Turbulent was able to continue. The patrol ended on July 15, a long patrol indeed, when Turbulent entered port and a new base. Beirut was to be home for a while and this must have added to the crew’s anxiety after a long and difficult patrol which would surely have tried their nerves. There was no depot ship and the crew were, according to the log book, ‘billeted ashore’.

The demise of Medway

It now becomes apparent that a move to Beirut was always in the plans but the bit of trouble to which Hugh refers is the sinking of their depot ship, Medway. Fortunately for Hugh and his fellow crew-members, he was nowhere near Medway at the time when she left Alexandria to make her way north.

Medway had served in the Far East before arriving in the Mediterranean in May 1940. As Andrew Mars explains in his book Submarines at War 1939-1945, a new flotilla, the 1st, was formed at Alexandria.The advantage of a mobile base rather than a land one was that it could be deployed wherever the fleet went. The crews spent a lot of social time on Medway, getting to know each other, watching films and playing games. They also used the ship for storing their belongings when they were out on patrol. A diary entry of Jim’s is relevant here.

1942 June 26 The new baby arrived home. News of the war is bad – Egypt is threatened.

Throughout the year, the Allies had been involved in North Africa, desperately trying to retain their bases. It was during Turbulent’s June/July patrol that Rommel pushed into Egypt via Mersa Matruh and, at the time Hugh was writing, the First Battle of El Alamein was raging. The British had built defence installations before the war. The 8th Army under General Auchinleck did not achieve complete success at this stage but managed to hold El Alamein long enough to prevent an attack on Alexandria only sixty miles away. At the beginning of July, the Captain of the Submarine Fleet began preparations to evacuate Alexandria. He found Beirut to be a suitable new base.

The evacuation happened quickly and without enough planning, Medway leaving on June 29. The large convoy which accompanied her proved inadequate and the following day she was torpedoed. Hundreds of personnel were on board of whom over a thousand survived and thirty were lost.  Observers saw many people in the water, some without life-belts. It was 9:45 in the morning. The weather was calm with a slight sea swell. Nearby destroyers picked up survivors. Important stores including spare ammunition were lost although some torpedoes were later recovered. Submarine crews such as Hugh’s who were on patrol elsewhere would think themselves fortunate not to witness the disaster despite the loss of their personal possessions. Remarkably, the sinking was kept secret for nearly ten months and even next-of-kin of casualties were not given detail of the circumstances as this directive shows.

Document ADM 358/4105 is Enquiries into missing personnel, 1939-1945.HMS Medway, 30 June 1942.  Submarine depot ship sunk by enemy action, torpedoes off the coast of Egypt.

ADM 358/4105 From Director, Press Division, Admiralty: C in C Medway’s 1748/5

6.7.42 When informing next of kin of casualties in HMS Medway, the name of the ship and the fact that she was sunk should be suppressed.

7.7.42. Inform next of kin by telegram omitting name “The ship in which your  [insert]  was serving was torpedoed by a Uboat whilst on passage”. This para should be included in the follow-up letter “To be treated as confidential.”

Photographs of the sinking show Medway’s black and white geometrical patterns. This type of painting was developed by Norman Wilkinson in 1917 and known as dazzle camouflage. Most survivors were picked up by nearby destroyers. Their job was made easier by the calm weather but the ship sank in thirteen minutes.  One rescue eventually hit the headlines. The bravery of 3rd Officer Audrey Conningham, a member of the WRNS serving on Medway, earned her special recognition.

3.11.42 Miss Conningham gave her life belt to a sailor who was in distress and thereby saved his life after she had been in the sea 30 minutes. Recommendation: mention in despatches rather than a letter of praise.

Lost and confused

Medway contained all kinds of stores and provisions as well as personal possessions. The crews took only the bare minimum when they went on patrol. Official documents were also kept on the depot ship and this may have had an effect on Hugh’s identity papers.

My contact with the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport was to ask if there was any information about Hugh Whyte. Archivist George Malcolmson replied saying that one of the ‘Submarine Service Movement Record Index Cards’ referred to Hugh. There should be one for each member of the service. The card showed that Hugh joined the Submarine Service as a volunteer on the Mediterranean station via HMS Medway, the submarine depot ship. This puzzled me. George went on to explain that Hugh had never had any submarine experience in the UK and he was ‘accepted into the service because there was an acute shortage of ERA’s (Engine Room Artificers) in the Mediterranean due to the high numbers of submarine losses’. He had joined HMS Osiris on 31.12.41 where his training probably took place.

Hugh gave Jim his Osiris address in his letter of May 14, 1941. The address remains the same for another year until he joined HMS Turbulent. This means he could not have joined Osiris in December 1941. He tells Jim that he will be leaving England after ‘this trip’. This turned out to be the voyage to Holy Loch. From there, Osiris left for Gibraltar in June. Hugh’s service record indicates that he was immediately in the care of Medway. I concluded that he could not have joined Medway in the Mediterranean.

George Malcolmson went on to say that a Hugh Whyte with a different service number was ‘drafted to the submarine service’ (Hugh’s exact words in his letter of February 9, 1941) on 13.1.41. He then joined Osiris on 13.2.41. This submariner was MPK (Missing Presumed Killed) when HMS Perseus was sunk on 19.12.41. George suggests that the confusion was caused by some records never making it to HMS Dolphin from Medway because of its sinking.

Crucially, there was no next-of-kin given on Hugh’s card. I was no closer to returning the letters to his family.

My own research shows that there were three naval men named Whyte. All had a middle name beginning with ‘M’. As well as Hugh, there was one who was a submariner, also an Engine Room Artificer 4th Class. He was Andrew Moffat Whyte, lost on Perseus on 19.12.41. Perseus was the victim of a mine off Greece, some reports say on December 6. Also, on December 19, Hugh Morrison Whyte was lost on Neptune, a cruiser which was mined off Tripoli. Amazingly, both Perseus and Neptune had one survivor. The man from Perseus swam ashore and was protected by local Greeks. Neptune’s survivor was picked up by an Italian torpedo boat and imprisoned until 1943.

R and R

At the present moment I am on five days leave at a rest camp.  This rest camp is up in the mountains overlooking the sea.  It is very pleasant and cool and is quite a change from being at sea.  It is roughly twenty seven hundred above sea level and I have just finished arguing with one of my messmates how far the horizon is from here. (no conclusion in spite of the pencil and paper). This is our second day here and I’m beginning to feel the benefits of the sunshine and fresh air already.  Three of us went for a long walk in the hills this morning and I thought I would never be able to get back – my legs were so tired after so much unaccustomed exercise. At this moment my two companions are sleeping it off. It is by far the best holiday I have had since leaving England.

Rest camps were provided for crew who had just returned from patrol and considered something of a reward. The first few days in port were usually spent tidying up and then preparing the submarine for departure again in case of short notice. During the period between July 15 and August 5, Hugh was attached to HMS Martial. This was the anglicised name for the Vichy French Naval Base Marechal, run by those who collaborated with Germany after the fall of France. In Allied hands since the Battle of Beirut in June 1941, the base came into its own following the loss of Medway, the large number of entertainment venues being a particular advantage. Although the log book’s dates do not quite agree with that of Hugh’s letter, he was amongst one half of the crew enjoying the much-appreciated change of scenery. Meanwhile, the boat was preparing for the next patrol. The essential work of painting and scraping off salt crystals and barnacles continued until the end of the month.

Extracts from Turbulent’s Log book for July

16th 0800 Hands employed working on torpedoes, main batteries and in compartments. Bedding aired.  17th – 21st 0800 Hands employed working on torpedoes, main batteries and in compartments. 1300 Make and mend. 22nd 1200 Half ship’s company leave till 1200 27th. 23rd 0815 Hands employed scraping saddle tanks and working on torpedoes. 24th 0800 Hands employed scraping casing and embarking distilled water. 26th 0800 Hands employed scraping bridge and painting casing.

In both your letters you mentioned the lovely weather you were having in Cheshire. It is good to know that you are still able to enjoy it. Though I suppose in a way even the sun and air is rationed these days – with less time and fewer facilities to get into the country people will be getting less than their peacetime quota. How about the caravan in Wales? You have not mentioned it since Easter. It would be good to spend a summer evening wandering around Wales in a caravan. It would be almost as good as summers spent in the Canadian backwoods.

            Jim with her nephew Colin born in 1942

So you are a godmother now? It sounds very imposing indeed. A boy no less – that is a bit of a break don’t you think? Girls are all right but boys are better. I think I’ll have all boys myself.

This tongue-in-cheek comment of Hugh’s refers to the birth of the first of Jim’s two nephews who were born that summer. Jim was now adding to her diary intermittently. At times she sounds despondent, at others almost happy, especially when receiving positive signs from her boyfriend; but when both sisters-in-law gave birth to sons in June and July she was ambivalent, there being little prospect of having her own children. Her godson was born to Rob and his wife at a nursing home in Heswall. The following Sunday, she cycled over to see the six-day-old baby and a week later, with mother and son still in the maternity home, she commented that It seems strange that a newborn baby requires so many ration books – tea-sugar-meat-eggs-sweets-and a huge gas mask.

Have you received the two photographs I sent you? You will note the lack of whiskers. They were taken in the pre-beard days. I was going to send them before but lacked the courage. By the way I have shaved the beard off again as it was becoming very uncomfortable in the hot weather at sea. I have a couple of snaps of the set in full bloom and I’ll send you one later.

The only photograph of Hugh in Jim’s possession was without a beard.

How much longer?

You were asking when I expected to return to England. It is really hard to tell but I should say that about nine months out here should be about the maximum. There is no definite period, some are luckier than others.

The heavy losses of submarines in the Mediterranean contributed to this uncertainty. When I first read the letters, I was hopeful that Hugh had returned to England following the last letter of February 1943. Worryingly, Jim’s other newspaper cuttings referred to Turbulent too being reported missing.

At the time Hugh wrote this July letter, Malta was still suffering horrific conditions. April had seen a bomb through the roof of Mosta church. Miraculously, it did not explode. Over the summer, bombing continued and the harbour area was littered with wrecked shipping and buildings. Germany was concentrating efforts on the Russian front and, gradually, things quietened down. August saw the British launch Operation Pedestal.  Amidst attacks from the air, a convoy managed to get through in the nick of time. The Maltese people had been at starvation point. In September, bombing soon ceased and Allied submarines began to return to the harbour. Some were transferred from Alexandria as part of Malta’s 10th flotilla. Hugh must have felt relatively safer in Beirut.

If I don’t seem to have answered some of your letters you will please excuse me as I am certain there is quite a few that I didn’t get. At least I am very grateful for the two I received this time as it was more than I expected.

Yours,

Hugh