Training pays off

Hugh was now ready for action. His training at Gosport would have been about six weeks long starting with exercises to test his ability to live in cramped and enclosed spaces. Training in navigation, signals and handling of torpedoes followed and, not least, rules for using the ‘heads’. In readiness for working in the engine room, Hugh became conversant with all the electrical workings, pumps, batteries and motors. His literacy skills were obviously up to scratch, as his numeracy skills would have been.  At sea, exercises would give him experience in emergency procedures and first aid as well as use of machinery.

The boat, however, was still dogged by faults. Despite weeks of work, final tests revealed an error. Osiris underwent a static dive test but would not sink. An investigation revealed that the diving planes had been fitted back to front. The fault was expediently rectified.

A third letter

By the time Hugh wrote to Jim again in August 1941, he was a man with experience of life aboard a submarine. It was only four days after the date of his May letter that Hugh left Chatham for his initiation into life at sea. His theoretical and practical knowledge, proved by qualifying examinations, would now be put to use. Osiris was at last ready for sea but the refitting had to be finally tested with sea trials. This involved joining the convoy EC24. The crew would soon forget the dockyard routine with dinner breaks at mid-day, Saturday afternoons at leisure and Sunday divine service. A new regime took its place. Lieutenant Commander T T Euman would see that the monthly log book was kept up to date. Nearly seventy years later, I pored over it at The National Archives at Kew. The entry for May 23 states:

08:15 Hands fall in. Prepare for sea.  14:55 Harbour stations.  15:17 Left berth assisted by 3 tugs.

Thursday Aug. 29th 1941

Dear Tim,

At last I have settled down to write to you again. It is so long since I wrote to you that it really takes some courage to sit down and pen you a few lines. I have your last and most delightful letter in front of me now and note with some misgivings that it is dated May the nineteenth. I hope you will forgive this long delay in spite of the fact that I have no excuse to make.

Having forgotten her nickname, Hugh has misread Jim’s signature as ‘Tim’. Her handwriting wasn’t the easiest to read, having lots of loops and tending to sprawl. When at the end of his previous letter Hugh warned her not to be long in answering it, she had heeded his words. He may have received her letter, forwarded from London, before going to sea.

Setting off

Osiris sailed out into the Medway via South Lock and off to Sheerness where she spent the night secured to Number 18 Buoy. Early next morning she slipped her berth, passed the defences of the Medway Defence Boom and took up a station astern of a convoy bound for Scotland. The Boom never came under fire from the enemy but only the month before had been damaged by friendly fire during an exercise. The East Coast convoys took place every two days or so from Southampton to the Clyde and Osiris joined number 24.

Although he was no stranger to surface boats, this was a new experience for Hugh. He would surely have greeted that first full day with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation as he left Sheerness at first light. If he knew the intended route, he would also have been excited about going to the Glasgow area.

This was the day, May 24, when Bismarck sank HMS Hood and all Royal Navy vessels were told to look out for her. At 1540 the commander received his orders ‘by line’ from HMS Wallace which was stationed at the rear of the convoy. Making their way from buoy to buoy off the east coast of England, they were soon alerted to danger. Just before 10pm, Osiris took up gun action stations and the convoy was attacked by an aircraft. Osiris opened fire by machine gun. A few minutes later, at 2209, two bombs dropped near the escorting destroyer Vanessa. It seems the boat may have had a lucky escape on this occasion.

Jim’s world

Jim kept abreast of events: 1941 Sunday May 25 The papers are full of the Battle of Crete and the immediate prospect of an invasion. Loss of the Warship Hood with about 1,300 men.

The losses from HMS Hood actually amounted to over fourteen hundred and had a shattering effect upon public morale. The Allies were worried about the threat of further conflict.

The Battle of Crete had begun on May 20, when German paratroopers invaded the island. The Allies, not to mention the local civilians, put up a good defence, resulting in heavy casualties for the enemy. The Germans, capturing a strategic airfield and therefore bringing in supplies, were able to fight back. Crete had been in the hands of the Allied forces since 1940 and the Royal Navy were able to take advantage of its excellent harbours. The RAF, feeling the threat, moved planes to Alexandria. An airborne assault clinched victory for Germany.

Sailing north

Convoy EC24, comprising thirty-five ships, came from Southend. They passed Sheringham Buoy in the early hours of the next morning, May 25, ahead of schedule. At 1015, the log book reports, a generator had burnt out but they carried on, reaching Flamborough Head at 1:15pm. Here, Vanessa, having completed her task of looking after Osiris, left the convoy and, as the voyage continued, a number of ships left or joined the group. Visibility was poor during the day, fog causing ships to lose their course. By nightfall they had passed the buoy at Hartlepool. During the evening of the next day, May 26, a diving operation was performed successfully near East Bell Rock. Keeping in the company of the escort, Osiris continued her voyage.

Hugh was now in Scottish waters.  May 27 brought more thick fog in the early afternoon as they approached Pentland Firth. By evening, the weather had improved and they made their way past the rocks of Little Skerry and Muckle Skerry to pass the island of Stroma and then Dunnet Head. A little later, an eastbound convoy passed and the corvette HMS Lavender came up astern to act as escort. Designed for anti-submarine work, these flower-class corvettes were quick and cheap to build and were vital for the protection of convoys.

Momentous news came with the sinking of Bismarck and once again Jim tells us how she heard.

Completing a journal

1941 May 27 At lunchtime Mr [Headmaster] announced that we had sunk the Bismarck which was supposed to be unsinkable. In the evening it rained. Between the showers I took Rum out. The sun was very hot – it was beautiful on the front. Spitfires were darting in and out of the clouds, silhouetted like stiff birds. It thundered and lightened and I saw a balloon come down in flames. Had to wash Rum and so to bed. Here endeth another journal.

This final entry in Jim’s exercise book diary came at a critical point in the war. The sinking of the Hood shocked the British people as, in a different way, did the retaliatory sinking of the Bismarck. As spring turned to summer, still the bombs continued to fall.

Hugh turns south

It was May 28 when, with the sighting of Cape Wrath at midnight, the anticipation was mounting for Hugh as the boat headed south and towards the air he had breathed as a child. Another seven hours and they passed the small island of Eileen Trodday just north of Skye. Taking a course west of Skye, the crew soon spotted Skerryvore Lighthouse, the tallest in Scotland. As the boat made its way through the islands of the Hebrides, Orsay Lighthouse on the western tip of Islay came into view. To starboard, Altacarry Lighthouse could be made out as daylight faded. Now, with land visible on all sides, they passed the island of Ailsa Craig as Osiris turned north-east and up the Firth of Clyde.

With the journey nearly over, they passed the boom at 0602 on May 29 and secured the boat alongside Al Rawdah. This vessel had been requisitioned in 1940 and was acting as a military base as well as a prison ship. Once in the safety of Holy Loch, various exercises began including ‘man overboard’. They moored there and in Loch Long for another two days but it would now be possible for the crew to leave the boat. Three months on, Hugh recalled this temperate climate.

Your letter seems to bubble over with the beauty of Deeside in springtime, and reading it out here in this torrid climate gives one a touch of nostalgia. Spring is but a memory now, and summer is almost over, but somehow I feel you at least have enjoyed each day to the utmost.

Hugh was able to look up at the Scottish mountains in the June warmth and watch the setting sun late into the evening. At the same time, the countryside was on Jim’s mind for quite a different reason as she started her new, blue diary. There were reports of local war damage. Beautiful weather, whilst good for country walks, was often a signal for more bombing. 

Merseyside air raids

1941 Thursday May 29 Woke about 1am to the sound of a heavy nearby explosion. The drone of enemy planes filled the air. Loud calls from downstairs to descend…

The chalet bungalow in Parkgate where the family had lived for about five years had two bedrooms upstairs. One had been vacated by her younger brother so Jim ‘descended’ alone to join her mother and sister on the ground floor.

…We made tea then suddenly heard a bomb screaming down very close. We dived under the kitchen table. No explosion followed. The gunfire lessened so we went to bed… School much easier as the boys gardened. Went to the Library but found it roped off as far as the church – two time bombs. The warden told me they were a sticky kind.

There was a similar heavy raid the following night. This time Jim was alone in the house because, that day, her mother and sister had left for the family’s caravan.  The nearby village of Lower Heswall, which had been a victim in the earlier raid, took another battering.  Buildings had been installed along the west coast of the Wirral Peninsula to act as decoys, the aim being to divert the enemy from Liverpool by making the Dee look like the Mersey. Jim’s account of this latest bombing gives the facts.

Intending to visit Heswall library after school, Jim found part of the village cordoned off because of the unexploded devices.

May 31 We had 1 hour’s raid warning 1:30 pm to 2:30pm so may expect a raid tonight. During the night Heswall lower village damaged – 7 people killed –the CE School wrecked.

Escape to Wales

Jim at the family caravan on a less clement occasion

Jim decided to join the ladies in Wales on the Saturday for the Bank Holiday weekend. It must have been a relief for her to spend a night at the caravan. It stood in a field adjacent to the Llangollen Canal. She had set off about mid-day on a beautiful hot day. On her arrival she noticed that rhubarb was up round the caravan and that the potatoes they had planted were showing. She was reminded of the dangers at home when, during the night, she heard planes whizzing overhead. However, the hot weather and pleasant surroundings must have given her some respite from both the war and from school. Her dog provided companionship.

Sunday June 1 Walked along the canal with Rum. The canal was beautiful – splashes of yellow broom, wild hyacinths under the fringe of trees and below in the valley a great sweep of meadowland with red and white cows lazily grazing amongst the buttercups.

Although it was Whitsuntide, Jim went home on the Sunday to spend the rest of the week by herself. Appropriately, she started reading The Long Weekend, lent to her by a friend together with Sparkenbroke. During the next week, she saw the bomb damage in Heswall for herself. The school house had taken a direct hit and the headmaster’s daughter was one of the dead.

Jun 3 Walked to Heswall. Saw the weekend damage. The school gone west and the little school house in which 2 were killed, another large house 3 killed and much damage to glass and property.

Jim’s mother and sister were backwards and forwards to Wales throughout June and into July while she enjoyed her swimming and looked forward to the end of the school term.

The boy and the girl

You – quite obviously – have a zest for living. It makes me smile to hear you say you wish the days were longer and one didn’t have to sleep. It reminds me of a book of Margret [sic] Rawlings – I’ve forgotten the name of it now – about a lad who was brought up in the hummock country of Florida who always regretted the sun going down and the coming of night. By the way this woman has a rather sympathetic understanding of the psychology of a boy growing up.

This was The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings, the book Hugh had mentioned in his first letter.

Flats in Thornhill, Johnstone, destined for demolition in 2013

Hugh’s comment about boyhood leads us to look at his upbringing. According to their marriage certificate, Hugh’s parents lived in the area of Johnstone near to Walkinshaw Street. The latter was Hugh’s destination in 1940. When Hugh’s father married Margaret, he was living in Thornhill. This is where Hugh lived as a child. Tenement buildings were common in this area. Multiple families shared amenities.  Improvements in the 1930s came too late for Hugh and his family. One can only guess at how they managed when William left in 1920.

The year they spent in America in 1923 would have severely disrupted Hugh’s schooling. This was an ambitious family and either his school or his family had instilled in him a love of literature. He had a perceptive appreciation of issues involved. Perhaps books were also a way of escaping into a world of dreams and hopes for the future.

Jim’s childhood had been more privileged. When the family evacuated themselves to Montgomeryshire during the First World War, Jim received home-schooling from her father. As a small child, a nanny would take her for walks and generally see to her needs. This ‘nurse’, as Jim called her, would have been particularly valuable when Jim’s mother went to stay with a sister in Oxford for the birth of her last baby. Following Herman House School, Jim moved on to The County High School for Girls, West Kirby, at the age of thirteen. Here she excelled at sport with swimming being her particular strength. This led to her decision to train as a teacher of Physical Education although back trouble forced her to later change to other subjects.

A mutual friend

In the next part of his letter, Hugh seems conflicted with answering Jim’s and his current situation.

You were telling me about a young pilot who had the good fortune to take you to see ‘Major Barbara’. I wonder if such an idealist would really make a good pilot? I feel that the good healthy animal type who didn’t think too much about the job would be more suitable. I think Ian Fraser – with all due respect to him – would make a very capable bomber pilot. One who thinks more in terms of machines and horsepower rather than in terms of the human lives involved in it.  In my own case I have found that at the time one is at ‘action stations’ one thinks more in terms of thousands of tons destroyed rather than of the men who lose their lives. And to think that at one time I had pacifist leanings! It would be interesting to know what your pilot friend’s reactions were to his first bombing.

Jim had been to see Major Barbara on May 13 and it was the following day that she met the pilot. It was Jim who had offered to take him to Chester but there is no evidence that they ever went.

The reference to Ian Fraser takes us back to the voyage from America in 1940. Jim recorded the trip in detail in her daily journal and mentioned Ian often. They played tennequoit during the days and danced together in the evenings. When, at the end of the voyage, the boat was forced to wait outside the bar in Liverpool Bay, Ian made a joke about ‘travelling 3,000 miles and finding the bar closed.’

Hugh’s next voyage was, for him, to completely new waters.