On the 1st July 1943, twenty three other budding signalmen and I reported to HMNZS Philomel for entry into the RNZN. We had undergone our medical and education tests some time prior to this but went through the medical test again, were kitted out with our uniforms, hammocks and bedding and all the bits and pieces issued to sailors, had our first Navy meal (lunch) and eventually boarded the boat to take us down harbour to HMNZS Tamaki where we marched up the hill to the barracks and were allotted our dormitory, shown how to sling a hammock and get in and out of it and generally kept very busy.
The next three weeks were taken up with getting us fit (most of us were) by moving at the double everywhere we went, classes on Navy lore and tradition, knots and splices, Morse code and semaphore, pulling an oar in a whaler, learning to get on with our shipmates, several had been in the army and knew it all or so they thought, but mostly a good time to be young and fit. I was the youngest in the class, not yet eighteen and soon made friends with my own age group while the twenty to twenty-one year olds tended to stick with their age group.
Back Row: Terence Hooker, Harold Jaycock, Thomas Ansell, Herbert Hughes, Brian Blair, Bob Smith, Jack Murray, Bruce Clark, John Mitchell
Middle Row: Jim Dunning, Doug Thomson, Doug Ferner, Gordon Jeffreys, S Bush, Kenneth Dutton
Front Row: Andy Vette, Rolly Henderson, Ray Cain, Robert (Skip) Higgins, Wiggy (Instructor) William (Bill) Durham, Reginald (Ali) Prout, Colin Topp, Tom Brereton. Absent R W Smith (in Sick Bay)
On the 21st July, we departed from Tamaki (while the seamen who had joined with us had another nine weeks there), and that afternoon boarded the overnight train to Wellington and next day, the Inter island ferry “Wahine” for the overnight trip to Lyttleton, then the short train trip into Christchurch and onto the Dunedin Express. Our final destination, the Signal Training School in Dunedin at the RNZNVR headquarters in St Andrews Street. We were known as the 2nd Sigs, the 1st Sigs were half way through their course there, so were old hands.
We had travelled from Auckland in the charge of Yeoman of Signals Ken Doole, who was to be our course instructor. Ken was still in square rig (sailors uniform) but soon changed to fore and aft rig (Petty Officers). He was a long service man and had gone to Britain to commission the Leander and was on her when war broke out and served in the Mediterranean. I remember him telling us that when the Italian bombers came over, the skipper would clear the bridge except for himself and Ken who would lie on his back with his binoculars trained on the high flying planes and watch for the bombs to leave the planes and the skipper would take evasive action to dodge them.
We were kept on the go from early in the morning, out of bed (we slept on light stretchers which had to be picked up and stowed away each day) out in the dark and off at the double around the streets of Dunedin. A mile or so down the streets and turn for home with the pace quickening until the last few hundred yards became a race. Breakfast followed and we were fed like kings by five or six Wrens who lived elsewhere but came in each day to prepare our meals. The three months pressure cooker course meant many of us had to do a lot of swot to do well and in the final exam, I missed being top of the class by ½ a mark.
On Saturday mornings we were often taken for a route march around the harbour and on one occasion, lugged a Bren gun along to a rifle range and were shown how to use the weaponry and given one shot each at a target.
My Aunty May lived in Dunedin and I was often able to visit her on Sunday and enjoy her marvellous cooking. I probably lost weight at Tamaki but soon put it back on in Dunedin. We left Dunedin on 14th October and travelled back to Philomel and two weeks leave and on reporting back after leave were sent out to the Avondale Racecourse to a transit camp to await a draft overseas.
We had known for some time that we were going to HMS Assegai in Durban but only the top sixteen in the class were to go which had been another incentive to do well in the final exams. One of our class R W (Richard) Smith was a Maori from Hokianga and passed in the top 16 but was told he could not go to Durban because of the ‘colour bar’. He went to the Leander which was a dry dock in Devonport when we came up from Tamaki on our way to Dunedin. The great hole in her side from the torpedo hit was very evident then. The Leander went to the U.S. East Coast for repair and the crew went on to England and the Achilles.
On the 23rd November, we took the long overnight train trip to Wellington again and the next day we boarded the Dutch Liner “Nieuw Amsterdam” now a troop ship, along with 104 other New Zealand sailors and a few American servicemen (some being sent home under guard for disciplinary reasons), and on the 24th November 1943 sailed from Wellington bound for San Francisco, where we arrived 13 days later after an uneventful trip alone across the Pacific. We sailed under the ‘Golden Gate’ bridge in the early hours of the morning and late in the afternoon left the ship, loaded our kit-bags and hammocks and ourselves onto trucks and were driven over the same bridge to the railway on the other side of the harbour. Then began a 4 day, 5 night train trip to Norfolk, Virginia. The carriages had bunks which folded up during the day but leaving the bottom one as a seat. There was a dining carriage for meals, occasional stops for other traffic to pass on the line and the never ending panorama of the American Rockies, then the semi desert of the Western states into the more closely settled Midwest and Eastern states. Being midwinter, many areas were under snow and Chicago was freezing, as was Norfolk when we arrived.
Our stay at a US Navy barracks was an interesting experience and I was to see a lot more of the US Navy later in 1945. Our ten days in Norfolk enabled us to go to Washington DC on leave where we were billeted with local families and visited many of the places we had only seen at the Cinema -the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Memorial, the Senate and the Senate Library were some. The dances at the USO’s were great, plenty of attractive young dancing partners who usually asked “Do you speak English?”. Had no idea where New Zealand was.
On the 23rd December, we boarded the SS Richard Bassett, a Liberty ship with one hold filled with 5 or 6 high bunks and several hundred American servicemen for company and sailed with a large convoy of ships for Oran in North Africa where we arrived on 11th January 1944, after an uneventful trip with mainly good weather for that time of year. An air attack on part of the convoy the night before we arrived in Oran saw the sky lit up with tracer-like Guy Fawkes night I thought. We heard later that the ship which took our place in the convoy was sunk next day in an attack.
USN Receiving Station, Oran, North Africa
We were taken to a US Navy transit camp about 5 miles out of Oran and lived in Nissan huts. We were able to go into Oran on leave and having no regular pay day, were always short of money. Leading Sig Dave Roydhouse who was in charge of the whole draft usually managed to get a few dollars each for us. This shortage of money led to some of our mates selling their shoes or anything they could to the local Arabs. Mattress covers (an envelope-like cover which pulled over our hammock mattress) were very popular with the Arabs and one of our Sigs, who shall remain nameless, cut his cover in two and tried to sell one to a local Arab and had a knife pulled on him and was lucky not to be carved up. Tangerines were plentiful and cheap and could be bought from the local farmers, but the food in camp wasn’t bad, except for ‘Spam’ which was like rubberised meat loaf.
We sailed from Oran on 31st January on the British troopship SS Chantilly along with a number of American servicemen, but the food wasn’t bad and there was plenty of space. The weather was calm but cold and overcast with low cloud and standing lookout watch one day, three fighters popped out of a cloud and flew right at and over us giving me a real fright but the ships bosun was quite unconcerned and said they were Mustangs and ours. Travelling in convoy in long lines through swept channels (for mines) with the North African coast in sight. Most of the time things were relatively quiet although an alarm the second night out resulted in a ship being torpedoed. We passed Bizertte on the 4th February. Malta would have been away to the North but couldn’t see the island and the weather by now was stormy and overcast with very rough seas. By Sunday 6th February a lot of ships dropped out of the convoy to go to Sicily and Italy and on the 9th passed Alexandra and we entered Port Said on the 10th February and then the Suez Canal. The ship anchored for the night in the Bitter Lakes and reached Suez the next day at about 4.00 pm on the 11th February.
We were given half an hour to get ready to disembark and were taken to HMS Saunders, a combined Ops Camp about 30 miles from Suez and on the shores of the Bitter Lakes. The landing craft and troops had long since departed to Italy or Sicily and we were billeted in tents, sleeping on the sand on our hammock mattresses and freezing at night but terribly hot during the day. We couldn’t get leave to go to Cairo but were able to go to Ismailia for a night. Met quite a lot of New Zealand soldiers from a nearby camp. Played in a rugby game against a South African air force team and beat them. They were big guys too and the ground was hard as rocks. The camp cooks and workers were all Italian prisoners of war and seemed more than happy to be where they were. Plenty of food and relative freedom in contrast to the way our allied P.O.W’s were treated.
On the 8th March, we were roused out of bed at 4.30am and at 6.00am left for Suez. By 9.00am, we were aboard the troopship ‘Riena del Pacifico’, a British ship, along with a lot of English airmen, a few ATS girls and a large number of South African coloured troops who had been in North Africa. They were never issued with weapons but were used as labourers. It was interesting talking to them as they knew about the Maori Battalion and were obviously envious of the way they were regarded, and knew they would be given nothing on their return home. The ship didn’t sail until next day the 9th March and proceeded alone as far as Aden where we arrived on the 12th but no leave was given and we sailed on the 14th in convoy with three other troopships for Mombasa where we arrived on the 20th and berthed alongside in the morning and sailed again late in the afternoon. The weather in the Indian Ocean had been calm and warm and early in the afternoon of the 25th March nearly 4 months to the day since leaving Wellington we arrived in Durban. Most of the Air Force people went straight ashore but we had to wait until the next day and eventually disembarked in the afternoon.
On to a train and the relatively short trip to HMS Assegai, which was a vast sprawling camp. Quite a few New Zealanders who we had trained with were already there, having come the shorter route via Australia. We were all very disappointed as most of our mail had been sent to England. With the fleet moving back to Trincomalee in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Assegai was already being used only as a transit camp, but it was good to be there, and getting plenty of leave soon found our way around Durban where the English people made us very welcome. For the sixteen of us in the 2nd Sigs our stay was short and on the 19th April we packed our gear again and embarked on HMS Kenya a sister ship of the “Gambia”.
As passengers on an already overcrowded cruiser we weren’t exactly welcome and had to sling our hammocks in the aircraft hanger and make do as best we could. We had become adept at living out of a steaming bag (a small kit-bag) as most of our gear went into a hold somewhere to save space. This was our first experience on a warship and having to stand lookout watches, we soon got used to ship routine, but only learned some things the hard way, and as anyone who served on cruisers knows the dozen or so cubicles in the heads had a step-up to the seat and a low door, but one had usually to join a queue to use them. I looked around and two cubicles were not being used so parked myself in one of them. The next day the same thing and I was seated there when an old salt stuck his head over the door and in broad English said “Are you C.D.A. Jack”. I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about and must have looked it, as he went on to explain that the sign on the door, C.D.A. stood for Contagious Diseases Act, and unless I had such a disease I shouldn’t be using those heads. Needless to say I never ventured into that place again but firmly believe that you cannot catch anything from a well scrubbed toilet seat.
The Kenya arrived at Colombo on May 3rd and we again lightered our gear ashore and on to trucks and made the short trip to HMS Lanka which in peace time had been a big school for girls. We soon found our way around Colombo and over the next eight months made several visits to the city.
On the 10th May Bob Smith and I were drafted to HMS Atheling, and although based mainly at Trincomalee we occasionally made the journey round the south of Ceylon to Colombo. We were the only two ratings on board and along with Lt. (A) Pat Gill of Rotorua were the only New Zealanders on her. Several New Zealand pilots were on board at different times. Lts (A) Jack Parli and AH Churchill were two I remember. Lt Gill was the DLCO (Deck Landing Control Officer) or ‘Batman’. Sub-Lt Ben Heffer RNZNVR flying a Corsair was the first person to fly off Atheling on 16th April 1944 off Madras.
There is an interesting story of Ben’s as to the reason for this flight. Ben and his fellow Corsair pilots loaded their planes on Atheling in the UK but did not travel with them on her. They travelled on an ex-Aircraft tender. After arriving at Madras (pilots and planes) the aircraft were bought up on deck and engines started and run, then the planes were lightered ashore. Ben’s aircraft would not start due to a faulty generator so was left on board to be taken back to Trinco. However, an engineer on Atheling made a new part for the generator and they got the plane started, but had sailed by this time. Ben managed to get permission to fly off but only if the wind speed down the deck was about 25 knots. He sat in his Corsair for hours until the breeze freshened and at last he took off. No trouble and nearly airborne by the time he reached the bridge, so after ‘beating up the ship’, he headed to land and eventually met up with his squadron.
From 10th to 13th June, in company with HMS Illustrious, Atheling with covering forces, carried out a diversionary raid on Sabang (I can still see the first Barracuda taking off from Illustrious and going straight into the sea. The next one off had to jettison his bombs to stay airborne, but made it). (ref: Chronology of the War at Sea, 1944). However the idea of Escort Carriers accompanying the Fleet Carriers as a spare deck and for Combat Air Patrol was not successful, due to the slow speed of the little Carriers and was largely discontinued.
On June 29th while doing deck landing training in the Palk Straits between Ceylon and India, Sub-Lt (A) Chittenden, RNZNVR, flying a Seafire crashed on landing and was killed when his plane went overboard. Also killed were Lt (A) RT Bisman, RNZNVR and three ratings who were on the flight deck. Lt Bisman and the ratings were buried at sea later that day. During these landing training operations many planes used by the Fleet Air Arm landed at various times. Seafires, Corsairs, Hellcats, Wildcats, Avengers, Barracudas and Swordfish all did their landings and takeoffs.
In August, Atheling was at Madras while the Gambia was there and I was able to catch up with several friends. We had a few days ashore for R and R, in a makeshift army camp with thatched roof and open sides and sitting at the end of the table and nearly outside the hut, my meal was suddenly snatched from under my nose by a “dive bombing” hawk. A visit to the “Temple of a 1000 steps” was another interesting experience there. Another day my two mates and I took a wrong turning and ended up a native quarter. We were suddenly confronted by a lot of stone throwing women who chased us out of the street. Obviously a British uniform was not welcome in that part of the city.
Off Trinco on 25th August, 1838 Squadron (Corsairs), Jack Parli and Co flew on for transport to Capetown via Mauritius to join HMS Illustrious and flew off in September near Capetown. We had a week in Capetown, did some sightseeing, had a game of rugby against a team from HMS Ruler (or Rajah) and returned via Durban to Cochin, then back to Trincomalee.
Atheling’s operational flying days were numbered as we left for Sydney in early December in company with the escort carriers Battler, Fencer and Striker, the cruisers Achilles and Swiftsure and destroyers Kempenfelt, Wager, Whelp, Wessex and Wakeful (ref: Page 364 “History of NZ Navy”). A week in Sydney from Christmas day to New Years Day with plenty of leave was very welcome. By the 7th of January 1945, we were at Esperito Santo embarking a large number of RNZAF personnel and ferrying them to Guadal canal. I scored a camp stretcher from a flight sergeant when he went ashore there which was ideal for sleeping on deck in the tropics.
A brief stop at Tulagi and eight days later we were in Pearl Harbour. Atheling became part of the British Pacific Fleet-train (ref: Page 365 ‘History of NZ Navy’), ferrying planes and equipment both ways to or from San Diego through Pearl Harbour to Guam, but also going to Manus, Roi and Eniwitok in the Marshall Islands. We called at Pearl Harbour nine times, San Diego five times and Guam three times. Atheling departed San Diego for the last time on 4th August and went through the Panama Canal on the 13th, up to Jacksonville, Florida and then to All those deck loads of planes had US Navy markings and I wonder now who we were working for. Turkey for Sunday dinner, good white bread, good beef, a far cry from the previous year at Madras when on watch on the bridge one day I looked over the side as an open truck drove up with a load of beef quarters, up with the hoist and the whole lot tipped on the wharf. Dirt, dust flies and all. I could only wonder what the slaughter-house was like, and that was our meat for the next few months. Bread wasn’t so bad, baked onboard and by holding a slice up to the light one could pick the weevils out, but they were well cooked.
Atheling was laid down on 9th June 1942 as USS Glacier and launched on 7th September 1942. She was commissioned on 1 August 1943 by her RN crew at Seattle and went to the UK then out to Ceylon and Madras. She was the second ‘Ruler’ class laid down and the second commissioned. HMS Ameer was the first commissioned on 20th July. Along with HMS Battler (already on station), Atheling, Begum and Shah were the first Escort Carriers to arrive for service with the Eastern Fleet.
The Ruler class were 11,420 tons, seventeen knots downhill. Being single screw were not very manoeuvrable when tying up to a buoy or going alongside, but I thought were quite comfortable to live on. Being US built they had bunks three high and biggish lockers in different parts of the ship. Our communications ratings’ accommodation was right up in the bow with the access down through the fore-peak off the well deck. Sleeping on a bunk was probably more comfortable in the tropics than a hammock, but in heavy seas one copped the full rise and fall motion of the ship and it was easy to get thrown out of bed. The heads and showers were pretty basic. The troughs with water running the length were common toilets on all types of US built ships during the war (the rolled up paper set alight to float the length was not an uncommon trick). A central mess deck with wardroom and ratings on either side of the galley, cafeteria style, made for easier messing.
Atheling had two, five inch guns on the stern below the flight deck, six or eight twin barrelled bofers and about twenty oerlikons along the flight deck catwalks and sponsons along the ships sides plus one on either side of the fore-peak (I’ve forgotten the exact numbers). Most of the stokers were T124X ratings (merchant Navy men). The Chief Yeoman of signals and one of the Leading Sigs had served in WW1 and the old chief after his tot liked to have a nap in the afternoon but always insisted on taking any signals into the captain. In the event of a signal needing the Captain’s immediate attention there was always a bit of duck shoving in the SDO to see who would wake the old boy up. By the time we paid off in Devonport the two Yeomen of Signals had been confirmed as chief yeoman as well.
Captain R.I Agnew, RCN was the skipper, Commander HL Oliver, RN the Commander and Lt Betts, RN (who had come up from the lower deck), the First Lieutenant. He tried many times to get Bob Smith and I to do a haka at the Ship’s concerts but no way, neither could we sing with any sort of harmony! With the Eastern Fleet, we were always busy, though had some periods swinging on a buoy in Trinco. In the Pacific we seldom saw another RN ship and spent long boring periods at sea.
Plenty of deck hockey if the deck was clear which was unusual. Rifle shooting off the stern end of the flight deck was popular and I was one of the best shots, having had a rifle since I was fifteen. Deck sports were also popular, but a tumble on the wooden deck could take skin off. Many of my shipmates were not happy serving in the Pacific and would have happily left it all to the Americans especially when the war in Europe ended.
At Manus, which is just a couple of degrees below the Equator, a working party downed tools and refused to unload stores in the heat. I never heard the outcome of that incident, but Captain Agnew who had not been well, left the ship either in Pearl Harbour or San Diego without any farewell and Commander Oliver took command. He was a very stern bloke as the 2 I/C but as Captain was a different person ready to chat or smile.
After leave, I reported to Philomel, but deferred my demob. and was half way through a Leading Sigs course when a chance for a draft to Achilles to go to UK and commission the Bellona came up so no hook. (An anchor or ‘hook’ is the badge of a Leading-hand). “Join the Navy and see the world” was a popular saying and in three and a half years I more or less completely circumnavigated the globe three times, and a different way each time.
I have an album of very good photos taken on the Atheling by Navy photographers, and in 1986 during a trip to the UK when visiting Yeovilton Fleet Air Museum found a photo of Atheling on display. I also have a little black book, which is the only reason I can quote dates and places with accuracy, however many incidents remain fresh in my memory. Reading a semaphore message from the flagship to all ships and with my eye glued to a telescope my mind suddenly going blank. A blast from the leading signalmen didn’t help, but he was worried about the ignominy of having to ask for a repeat.
The first time I saw planes landing on the Yeoman called down from the bridge to the little flag deck, which was at flight deck level and told me to ‘watch myself’. As the Corsairs circled, the leading one appeared to be crossing astern but suddenly banked, and plonk! was down to be pulled up by the arrester wire. I soon got used to planes coming and going (no earmuffs) but the Yeoman’s advice was fortunately never needed as the only place to go in the event of a mishap in my direction was over the side.
The nearly land-locked harbour of Trincomalee with the Eastern Fleet in and many ships out of sight of others in bays and inlets, and when putting to sea the procession of big ships through the narrow entrance. The French battleship “Richelieu” coming round a headland with its endlessly long fo’csle and Rodney and QE were three I remember. The fleet carriers dwarfing the escort carriers. The Bagpiper (a well known Kiwi) on a forward gun turret of one of the destroyers playing as they left the harbour. The birthday boy who had one tot too many in the middle of the Pacific and jumped overboard from the Bellona, he floated and was picked up by the seaboat’s crew. Drinking long cold rum and cokes with a NZ Sub Lt on HMS Corsair in Port of Spain.
The Corsair was in peace time a magnificent yacht, if that subby is still around, I will be happy to return the hospitality. The last New Zealand cruise of HMNZS Achilles visiting most New Zealand ports, Stewart Island and a memorable trip to Milford Sound.
Footnote: The other 14 signalmen in the 2nd Sigs who went to HMS Assegai and then to Colombo served in the following ships or shore stations.
Thomas Charles Ansell (7484) – Maldive Islands, HMS Maraga, Fueling base,
Tom Brereton – RNAS Sulur & Garuda (India), RFA Kimmerol(Tanker) Bruce Clark and Ray Cain – HMS Shah, Escort carrier
William Rayburn (Bill) Durham (5110) and Robert Breton (Skip) Higgins (7494) – HMS Begum, Escort carrier
Brian Donald Blair (7485) – RNAS Garuda (India) and Mayina (Ceylon)
Doug Ferner – HMS Sigfra, A/S patrol,
Aden Rolly Henderson – HMS Cyclone, HMS Rotherham, Destroyer
Herbert Reginald (Bert) Hughes (7496) – HMS Maidstone, Depot ship, Trinco
Gordon Jeffrey – HMS Flicka Evan Prout, HMKS Impala (K for Kenya) North Sea trawler/sweeper. Persian Gulf. Paid off in Capetown and went to Bombay. Drafted to L.C.T.(Tank) to go to Japan but war ended.
Colin Topp – HMS Sleena, HMNZS Gambia
Andy Vette – HMS Fiery Cross (Basra Irak)
Clark and Cain – went to England on the “Shah”
Higgins and Durham – were put off the “HMS Begum” when she went to England and left in Trinco.
I always considered myself very lucky to go to the “Atheling” as she was one of the most travelled ships in the Eastern Fleet and then the Pacific Fleet. Although Richard Smith was not sent to South Africa many Maori ratings did go there in other drafts and had no trouble with the “Colour Bar”.
The 4A Class of 24 signalmen who went to Assegai with us had not done their signal training and with Assegai closing down went to UK on the Riena del Pacifico and finished their training in Scotland. The 80 odd seamen in that Assegai draft were the 46th, 47th and 48th classes.
J R (Jim) Dunning NZ -7489