It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mr Martinson. Time and lack of resources have precluded the researching of facts to draw attention to any errors. The views expressed in this oral history are those of the interviewee only and not the NZDF, RNZN, and the Navy Museum.
Chief Yeoman of Signals Lincoln Campbell Martinson joined the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy in 1921, however, before he did this he had undertaken training in the training ship AMOKURA which was a New Zealand Government training ship for boys wishing to join either the Merchant or Royal Navy. Martinson underwent basic training in HMS CHATHAM as a boy signalman and was sent to Britain in 1923 for further training at Royal Navy establishments there. He qualified as a Leading Signalman while there and subsequently joined the battleships HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and HMS REVENGE. Martinson returned to New Zealand in 1924 and was posted to the cruiser HMS DUNEDIN. Apart from some brief periods ashore he served in either HMS DUNEDIN or HMS DIOMEDE until 1935.
In 1935 Martinson returned to Britain to do his Yeoman of Signals courses and spent the next five years in the battleships HMS BARHAM and HMS HOOD during the Spanish Civil War and describes various actions onboard these ships including assisting a British merchant ship which was being fired upon by Spanish shore batteries.
Chief Yeoman Martinson was then posted to the cruiser HMS ACHILLES in 1939 and was onboard that ship during the Battle of the River Plate. He describes this conflict from his action station on the bridge and was responsible for seeking permission from Captain Parry to hoist the New Zealand flag as HMS ACHILLES battle ensign. Martinson was badly injured during the Battle of the River Plate losing a leg and was consequently awarded a Distinguished Service Medal.
Lincoln Martinson spent the remainder of World War II ashore in HMS PHILOMEL, training signalmen, retiring in February 1945 upon the cessation of hostilities.
This is an interview with Mr L.C. Martinson at his residence 32A Morani Street, Belmont on 28th September 1990.
Good afternoon Sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you and we will get straight into the interview.
My first question is what year were you born?
So that makes you 85 years of age?
And where were you born Sir?
Waihi, in Waihi.
That’s the coal mining Waihi?
Right. What schooling did you have before you joined the Navy?
Just the usual up to Standard 6 and I got the Provisional Certificate.
What did your father do for a living Mr Martinson?
He was a bootmaker, what they call a bespoke bootmaker, in other words he could do anything with shoes, boots.
Did you have any brothers and sisters?
Yes. I had 3 brothers and 2 sisters. They are all dead except one brother now.
What influenced you to go to sea?
There were two really. One I wanted to, the sea I don’t know attracted me very much. Secondly we were in the middle of a rather nasty depression. There wasn’t very much that one could do in the way of work and quite a number of people were looking for employment etc. I decided to follow my own natural inclinations and got my father to let me join the Amokura which was a training ship, a New Zealand Government training ship, for young fellows interested in the Merchant Service, not necessarily the Navy, the Merchant Service. That was the main reason.
Can you tell me a bit about your time in the Amokura please?
Yes. The Amokura was an ex Royal Navy vessel. She was taken over by the New Zealand Government, disarmed and used as a training ship as I just said for young fellows interested in the sea. From about age of about 13 up and then to 15. The main training followed the natural Navy lines. There were four Navy, ex Navy Instructors on board, the Captain and a First Mate. Previously she had made many cruises over the years since the time that she was taken over by the New Zealand Government, up to as far as Raoul Island and one time to Fiji. When I joined her the expense of running her was so heavy even for those days that the New Zealand Government had decided to do away with sea voyages and do all our training in Thorndon Bay in Wellington.
How old were you when you joined her?
When I joined her I was just about 13.
Did you have any school work type training in addition to the naval side?
Yes we had. No I will just get your question again if you don’t mind.
Did you have any school work type training, educational training?
Yes, yes oh yes. The Technical College in Wellington used to send a schoolmaster down about once, sometimes three times per week and they used to take classes in our establishment ashore for different grades of school work. Got as you might say a Technical schooling, oh yes.
So you got in the Amokura some of the schooling that you would have received had you gone to Secondary Schooling?
What was the discipline like in the ship?
Hard. It was, they were ex Navy, they were good men but they were also very firm where discipline was concerned. You stepped out of line and you caught it. By that I mean they all carried switches or wands with them, nothing serious was ever done unless you did something serious. You stepped out of line any way at all, cheeky or in the vernacular of the present day you got it across the backside before you knew where you were.
How did you adjust to the discipline?
I didn’t worry at all about the discipline. I know all about the New Zealand way and all the rest of it, but I also knew, even though I was young, that if I wanted to get any where in this world I had to straighten myself out. If I was feeling a little bit undisciplined, I used to straighten myself out and go the way that the authorities wanted me to go. Which I did.
What sort of punishment would the Instructors give you if you transgressed?
Well there were about 3 or 4 different types of punishment. For misbehaving yourself to the extent that what you did was above the normal, you could get up to six cuts across the buttocks on the what they called the hammock bed. That was you brought your hammock up to the Quarter Deck, put it down, lay down on it and they walloped you with six of the best, and by golly they hurt.
Then the worst punishment, and I did it about half a dozen times, not being an innocent little boy. For instance if you were caught smoking in the spud locker, which was the ships vegetable locker or if you were insolent or the way kids can be, the worst punishment was up aloft, stand on the ships truck, the main truck, that’s the main mast, stand on the truck, that’s the very top of the mast, stand up there for half an hour. Irrespective of the weather, in just your flannel shirt. We all wore flannel shirts. There were no pyjamas in those days.
Now you were out in the stream as it were. What subject were you taught with a nautical flavour Mr Martinson ?
Oh we were taught with a nautical flavour, the Seamanship Manual, we went through that as if it were the Bible. We learnt splicing, rope and wire splicing, we learnt any thing that was necessary for a seamen to know for the maintenance of his ship and for the duties that he may be given in that ship as a Seaman Boy, and later as an A.B. and so on.
In the other line the one that I went for, Signals. They attracted me so I took up Signals. There in the Amokura we were taught Semaphore. That’s hand Semaphore and the Old Mechanical Semaphore which were pretty big, but pretty cumbersome to use in those days and Morse. Also we had to have a knowledge of flag signalling. That is Naval Flag Signalling and Merchant Navy. We were given a pretty good idea of what was in front of us if we went either to the Merchant Navy as it is now called or we went to the Navy proper. In my time of joining this didn’t exist in New Zealand, but did later on.
What about your personal cleanliness and things like that. Was that given any emphasis ?
Personal cleanliness was a must. Any body who forgot to have his morning tub. We had tubs on the Upper Deck, not down below as they are in modern ships. We had wooden tubs on the Upper Deck in the winter and in the summer. In the winter they were filled with hot water. After we had been called from our hammocks in we went, every morning. Personal cleanliness was an absolute must on the Amokura. In the summer of course you did the same thing, only you went into cold salt water from over the side. Heaven help any boy who forgot himself as regards his daily cleanliness. No it was a period when it was instilled in us from the very beginning. If it hadn’t been at home, it was at sea – that the best sort of companion for anybody was a clean companion. So that was the method adopted in the Amokura.
Now there was one other thing added to your personal cleanliness was bowel cleanliness. It is very important to know this, that even in those days the matter of bowel cleanliness was very important so we were given a dose of medicine every Friday night at bath time that made sure that your bowels had nothing in them.
What was it Castor oil ?
Yes, Castor oil and such like. What ever the Skipper thought would be the dose of the day. Believe you me, now I am not just saying this just to shock anybody but everybody ashore on a Friday used to know when the Amokura boys had had their dose. They were all over the ship, outside on the booms, on the boat booms, lower booms, cleansing themselves from what they got.
I see. Now how long did you do. What age were you when you left the Amokura, can you remember ?
What happened to you then ?
Well in the interim, the Chatham in 1920 arrived in Wellington. When she arrived in Wellington she asked Captain Hooper, Captain of the Amokura if he could spare a working party to help their ships company to wash down and clean the old ship up. She had been cruising on her way to New Zealand and she badly needed a bit of a clean up. I was one of those that was sent across to her. While we were on the Chatham I got a real good idea of what was going on. We were over there for about a week daily. I got a pretty good idea of what a sailor’s life would be like on her and it rather struck me any way as rather a pleasant sort of a life particularly the signal side. I met a couple of her signalmen. She only had 9 signalmen and well I just got the feeling that I might make a dam good sailor if I made nothing else. So it stuck in by visiting Chats, or Chatham, we called her Chats by visiting Chats and that, in that manner.
I also struck a working party on the Philomel. Old Philomel of bygone days. She was lying along side at Thorndon, so a party of us was sent to her. The thing that always sticks in my memory is that one of our jobs was to over haul all running rigging and the ropes etc., being the running rigging. Well she had a fore yard, that is the yard on the foremast which in her time at sea used to carrying a square sail which was done away with later. I always remember that, and always will remember, even now, that one of the basic features of life is to look before you leap. Because we were sent aloft, four of us under an Able Seaman on the Philomel. We went out on the yard. The Able Seaman himself, he very smartly worked his way out over the top of us out to the end of the yard and promptly fell. And as he fell he managed to grab a guide rope which fitted underneath all yards in all sailing ships. By good luck he managed to grasp the guide rope. He broke one arm but he saved his own life. Not only that but the ropes we were using, I call them ropes because it is better to explain in that manner, the ropes we were using were lowered to the deck and when we got them down on deck and we were running through them, half the stuff in Philomel was rotted through, half way through. We were very lucky.
Oh yes, very lucky.
Oh we were lucky. Yes Philomel in those days as you know she had been, I think she was a third class cruiser up in the Pacific. She had no accommodation what ever for training men. She had to be stripped. I will tell you the story of her going to Auckland, it is worth knowing.
She left Wellington late 1920’s on her way to Auckland and they filled her bottom with cement and they were very glad when she got to Auckland that they had. Because they found one hole in her bottom that was at least a foot long. I saw it. They were very glad that they did have the fore thought to fill her bottom with cement. It wasn’t very thick cement about 3 or 4 inches. And that saved old Philly from going down somewhere off the East Cape which would have happened.
As a result of this exposure to naval life you decided to join the Navy as a career ?
What year did that happen ?
That was in 1921, I joined in 1921. They took in a class of 20 in 1921 and I made sure that I was in that class. In fact my number proves it actually we were all numbered as you know and my number was 345 NZD 345. There was just 5 numbers ahead of me and the rest came behind me, or after me as you like.
It was one of the smartest things that I ever did. Because New Zealand was in one devil of a depression. Whether I would have found any work in the Merchant Service, the Lord only knows. Joining the Navy really did two things for me. It straightened me out if I was feeling a bit cheeky and it also gave me a life’s living, life time living. I was never, never sorry that I joined the Navy.
Great and what rate were you when you joined ?
Signal Boy. A unique experience that as a Signal Boy. Because you generally have got to go into a Signal School and get really educated in the work of the Signal Branch but the Chatham took me on board as a Signal Boy. We didn’t have Chief’s in those days. Chiefs were very rare, very rare indeed in the Navy then. The Yeoman of Signals was the boss of the Signal Staff. He took me over. A fellow called Gardner, we called him `Ginger Gardner’, but he is dead and gone long ago. He was a good man, he was from Chatham and he gave me a thorough training and he told me why. He used to keep me aboard when I thought I should be allowed ashore to have a couple of free runs. But he used to keep me aboard. Reading exercises as we called them. That is Morse, Semaphore and Flags. I wondered why he was pumping all this stuff into me. This went on actually through 1921 and in 1922. I wondered what on earth was going on. Then in 1923 he told me that Navy Office, Wellington were sending the same 20 who first joined the Navy, Stokers, Seamen, Stewards, Sick Berth Attendants what have you, they were sending them to England to undergo a years training.
This instruction that you are talking about from the Yeoman of Signals, this was in the ship Chatham ?
Now who did you mess with. You were a Signal Boy ?
Yes at first they didn’t know where to put me because we had no other Boys in the ship. When I joined I was the only Boy. Not that I was anything special but it just happened that I was the only Boy, the rest were all Ordinary Seamen because they were old enough for that. I was only just 15 going on 15 and a half then. The Navy was being very fussy about their youngsters. They didn’t really know what to do with me for a while so they put me in the Ordinary Seamen’s Mess. Well somebody higher up didn’t like that, so they pulled me out of the Ordinary Seamen’s Mess and they put me in the Signalmen’s Mess. That made it awkward for me. It hit me in one way that wouldn’t strike a civvy and that was that in the Signalmen’s Mess and all other Broadside Messes you had to pay a Mess bill. I only got 5 shillings a week and out of that I was supposed to pay my Mess bill. The Mess bill used to come some where about 12 shillings so I was in a bit of a mess.
When you talk about `Broadside Messing’ or a `Broadside Mess’ what does that mean ?
Well it simply means that when you go in the Navy you went into a Mess. The Broadside Mess is simply the naval expression for what they call a `General Mess’ today where you, the ships company with different ratings or classifications live together.
How did you feed yourselves in those days ?
We fed ourselves on what was called first, the Government issue, the Pusser’s issue from the Purser.
Was that called the `standard ration’ ?
The standard ration, that was vegetables, meat, all scurvy preventing stuff and that was it. You got sugar. I can remember now you got sugar and you got Glaxo. That was New Zealand ready mixed milk. In harbour of course you got proper milk, but Glaxo was used at sea. Any thing extra that you wanted you had to purchase from the canteen.
That was where the Mess bill came in ?
That’s where the Mess bill hit your pocket. The average Mess bill for purchasing from, if the Mess was run properly by the Senior Hand in the Mess, the average Mess bill was something like 15, or even sometimes went up as high as 25 shillings a month on the charges for such materials and food in those days. Well there was I in the Signalmen’s Mess where they averaged about 10 shillings a month and I was only getting 5 shillings a month, so it was a bit off ……
What was the standard of food like. I mean was it adequate ?
Good. Well it was up to your Cook. See in the Messes, not like today where you have special accommodation and specialized Cooks. Oh no, the only Cook that you would call specialized we had was in the ships Galley. There was always two Cooks on duty there. What happened was that in the Mess itself, the meals were prepared by the Cooks of the day. There was always two out of the Mess detailed and they were allowed by the ships rules a certain amount of time, an hour or so every morning to prepare the main meal of the day.
These chaps in fact in your case were Signalmen ?
Yes, it didn’t matter what they were they had to prepare, do the preparation for the meals themselves. Well I being only a poor unwanted little Signal Boy, I was permanent Cook. That was one of the duties that I got, permanent Cook and permanent Mess Deck sweeper. That meant to say that our particular Mess had to be spotless and I had to see that it was as regards cleanliness, and that was part of my payment towards my Mess bill.
I see so that’s how they got around it ?
That’s how they got around it.
I presume that you were all slinging hammocks in those days ?
Oh yes, there was no such thing as bunks. Hammocks now that was another big problem in cruisers of the Chatham class. She was only built for a certain number. In the Chatham she came out to New Zealand, the history books will tell you, its true enough she only brought about 300 crew with her and then as we gradually, very gradually trained and went to sea, so we filled up all the empty spaces. We filled them up so well that finally before I left Amokura in 1920, before I left Chatham to go to England in 1923 we were rather crowded and we used to sleep where ever we could. The stools in the Mess naturally were for sitting on, but we used to sleep on them. The reason for that was that a watch-keeper had special privileges as regards sleeping. He was allowed to sleep during the day while other people were about the ships duties. If he was a Middle Watchman or a Morning Watchman he was allowed to sleep in for an extra half hour, a half hour he got. That means that if he had been on watch as you know from midnight to 4 am or from 4 am, well that’s in the present time language, he was allowed an extra half hour of sleep.
That was called `Guard and steerage’ ?
`Guard and Steerage’, yes I see what you mean. Yes that was the Guard and steerage part of it.
(end of Tape 1)
(beginning of Tape 2)
Now Sir you were telling me that you were given fairly intensive instruction in signalling by Mr Gardiner.
Yes, well he would be tickled to death if he heard you, Commodore, calling him Mr. He was the Yeoman of Signals and he was from Chatham in England. He was one of the finest men that I ever knew in the Service. He made my life a misery in one way. I didn’t mind being a Signal Boy but I used to get a little bit browned off sometimes. When I should have, in my opinion any way have had a couple of hours ashore just to break the tedium of life, he used to keep me on board and thump blooming signal material in to me. He used to put me on the blooming signal books of those days. Until oh after about a year or so swotting them I could quote them.
Word for word.
I found out what his idea was. As time went on the Chatham did her usual New Zealand cruises. We used to do the Pacific, we would cover the Pacific from east to west and New Guinea and up the Fly River and places that in those days were mighty dangerous spots to be in. When we got back to New Zealand after one of those cruises, Navy Office, which consisted of one Chief Writer in those days, that was Navy Office, and Navy Office informed the Commodore that they were going to send 20 of the original New Zealand ships company to England for a years Naval training. Then I found out what `Ginger Gardiner’ had been up to, because I was of them.
We left New Zealand in the `Corinthic’ and went through Panama. No I beg your pardon I am drifting. We left New Zealand in the Corinthic and we went around the Horn in those days. That was the main passage home and got to Southampton.
In Montevideo there was a revolution under way which used to be a very common thing then. The Skipper let us go ashore on one condition, we were anchored in the stream. He let us go ashore on one condition that we were all aboard by 1600, that we were sober and that we behaved ourselves in the proper Naval manner. Which we did. We were not fools, we were young New Zealanders, but we weren’t silly. Well ashore wasn’t very pleasant. We went into a restaurant and I will always remember it. We had been sitting down, 20 of us the crew from the training ship, and we were sitting down to a meal which we managed to get through to the waiters. A hell of a lot of firing went on outside. Everybody in the restaurant dived under the tables. We thought that we had better do the same. We were mighty glad we did because they were firing at the windows.
They were smashing everything. We found out later, the Skipper told us when we got aboard, we all got aboard except one fellow and I will tell you in a minute. It was the usual thing in those days. These revolutions popped up every 6 months or so. Where `Charlie Harry’ decided he was going to be President and `Bill Jones’ thought that he would be President and so on and so forth, they used to have these scraps. When we made our way down to the pier where the ships launch – was – incidentally, it was the Corinthic that we were travelling in. When we got down to the pier one of our chaps, he wasn’t drunk but he was a bit of a bad devil. He decided that the best way to get to the Corinthic was to swim to her. It was just one of these things that sailors do. He wasn’t drunk or anything like that, but he was just full of devil. Well he didn’t divest himself he just dived over the side of the launch. I can swear to you that I have never seen anything like it in all your days. He, we were only about 3 cables away from the wharf and he swam all the way to the Corinthic and he beat us and he laughed like hell as we came up the gang plank. He was dripping wet. He wasn’t drunk because we had given our word that we wouldn’t do anything that would give the ship or the Skipper trouble and we didn’t. That was one little occurrence that happened on the way home as we called it in New Zealand in those days.
What training were you going to when you got to the U.K. What course were you on ?
I didn’t know until I got there but things happened very rapidly in my case. I think you could say it was rather unique. I was a Signal Boy when I joined the Chatham. When I left the Chatham I was a Signalman and I went from Signal Boy to Ordinary Signalman to Signalman in the space of 24 hours.
That was to Able Rate.
To Able Rate. If I hadn’t done that I couldn’t go to England. The Skipper, he decided that I was going to England you see so he rated me, and then he rated me again so I was okay. Now the shock that I got when we got to Portsmouth Barracks, which of course was different to what they are now. When we got to Portsmouth Barracks and I reported to the Signal School Regulating Office, myself and the telegraphist Snowy Kinzett, he’s dead now. We were the only two in the communications party. Snowy and I went to the Regulating Office for Signalmen. When we got in there the Chief of the Regulating Office, this was about 11 or 12’sh in the morning after we came up from Southampton, it would be a bit later than that noonish. He asked us if we wanted any leave. He said “you are from New Zealand”. We said “yes”. Now this is one thing, it was peculiar to us then. We wore white caps, it was winter time and all the Englishmen were in blue caps, which was the winter dress, a part of winter dress. When we got into the Signal School they never warned us, they never told us to change the caps or anything we just carried on per usual. They asked us, Snowy and I if we wanted any leave. The question arose of course, when did our Signal Course start, what ever course the Navy Office had put us in for, we didn’t know. One of us asked the Chief “what the heck we were in for, were we going to sea, were we going to have a course of some sort or what the heck”. The Chief, then said “yes, you are in for, you”, that’s me, “you are in for a Leading Signalmen’s Course”. Well you could have knocked me over. I didn’t know any thing about a signalmen’s duties let alone a blooming Leading Signalmen’s duties, and Snowy was in for the same. The telegraphist, they didn’t call them radio in those days, they were telegraphists. Then the Course didn’t start until after the Christmas leave. Much a do was made about nothing for a while, while they tried to sort us out. Our papers were finally found. At this point we were found to be receiving, after they got our papers we just waited around until they did sort us out, we were receiving 5 pounds a month, whereas the English sailors or Signalmen, Telegraphist etc., were receiving a shilling a day, which was a bit different you see. The matter was settled then and there by the Pay Office. They rang up the Regulating Office and they said “these people, these New Zealanders will be paid the same as we are paying the Australians, the Canadians and the South Africans and any other odds and sods that are around. They will be paid direct from the Pay Office in the Barracks Centre. They would not pay us with the ships company.
This was to save the embarrassment of you being paid more ?
That was to save the embarrassment of both the New Zealanders and other people, and the Englishmen. Doing the same duties, but getting very much higher pay. That was the idea of it.
How long did the Course last for ?
The first Course for Leading Signalmen was for just on 3 months. A 12 week Course. They sent us on leave for 14 days to get rid of us. We went up to London, saw the big City and the big smoke, came back off leave and then they didn’t know what to do while we were waiting for the Course, so we went on leave again. We had the money, so we were alright.
How did you get on the Course ?
On the Course itself. We got on very well, both Snowy and I. I came second in the Class. Don’t ask me why, my intelligence is no better than the Englishman’s. I had been as I told you previously well trained in the books by my ‘Ginger Gardner’ my Chief. And I knew the book language perfectly practically. I got second place in the Class, Snowy got around about the same spot. We did very well. I always consider and always will, its a bit late now in 1990, but I think Navy Office did the wrong thing. They sent us straight into the Signal School without any sea experience in the British Navy. I always thought, I thought then and I still think that was the wrong thing to do. We should have been sent to sea for at least 6 months to get the ground work, the real work of the Signal Department where the work was done. All we knew was the book work, which wasn’t all that easy when all is said and done. Talking about something which was, when it is actually put into practice is totally different in practice to what it was in the book.
When you passed the Course were you rated Leading Signalman after that ?
No, oh not Leading Signalman. When we passed the Course, we did another spot of leave, which they were very generous with. They wanted to keep us out of trouble I think. Then I went to the Queen Elizabeth, and she was the Fleet Flag Ship of the First Battle Squadron naturally. And from there all my troubles started. I did some time in the Queen Elizabeth. From the Queen Elizabeth the Signal Boatswain, he was the Head of the Signal Branch, he grabbed me one day and said “you young fellow, you can do a little bit of time in a small boat”, I didn’t mind. They put me in what we called the bum boat or the Supply Trawler and she was called the Blue Sky. They put me in the Blue Sky as the Signalman of the Blue Sky and her job was to keep the Queen Elizabeth supplied with mail, vegetables or anything else required, and I was in her for quite a time. Then I was taken out of her and sent to the Revenge, another big battler. I was serving on the Revenge, when I was told I was wanted in the Master at Arms Office one day. I did as I was told and went down to the Master at Arms Office and he said “are you a Rugby player ?”, this was a bit off the Navy side of it. I said “yes, I can play Rugby”. He said “well we just had a query”, and I can’t remember his name just now, but he was the English half back of the English Team and he wanted anybody in the Fleet who had any Rugby experience. It didn’t matter whether he was an Officer and a Gentleman or a Rating and a Sprog, it didn’t matter which he was as long as he could play Rugby. I said “well I knew a little bit about it”. I was hooker. Anyway I put my name down and the Signal Boatswain sent my name forward and through that I managed to squeeze my way into the Forces Rugby Team as it was called in those days. The United Forces Rugby Team. I had a couple of trips away, did very well. That’s how Rugby helped me overseas.
Revenge and Blue Sky. Now the Blue Sky was a lovely little ship. She was a trawler the same size as the WAKAKURA that used to be out here. I left her and as she was going across the Bay of Biscay she blew up.
What did she hit a mine or something ?
The only thing that could ever be surmised was that she hit a 1914/18 loose mine. There was no other reason for her to blow up. Unless the engines blew up. Anyway she lost all hands, this is the fortunes of war.
After you had finished your Course and done some time with the Royal Navy you then went back to New Zealand is that right ?
That’s right yes.
Any happenings on the voyage home ?
Well there was one rather splendid happening. When we went from Portsmouth Barracks, we were all recalled from the fleet where ever we may be. As I said I was in the Revenge at the time then. I had gone back to the Revenge. We were up in Scotland and where ever we were we were called back to the Barracks in Pompey and from there we were given our instructions with the next day we were to go down to Southampton and catch the Athenic for New Zealand.
That duly happened we went down, we got down there, we got down there rather early in the piece. There were 20 of us still together. I think there are about 3 of us left now, I can only trace three. Anyway the night before the 20 of us went aboard the Athenic and found we had been given special quarters on the, below the foredeck. They were quite good quarters. In those days there were three classes, steerage, tourist and first class – I don’t know what you would call our class, but it was something between steerage and tourist I expect. Anyway we got a bit fed up just sitting around waiting for sailing time, which was about 1600 or 1630 something like that in the afternoon. We got up a little deputation and went aft and saw the First Mate and asked if we could go ashore. There were eight hundred passengers. It was during the period when the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh and all the rest of them were leaving the British Isles as quick as they could get out, it was after the depression. We saw the First Mate and he said “yes, I will go and see the Skipper”. He went and saw the Skipper and the Skipper said “yes, provided you are on board”, the actual time doesn’t really matter because we were sailing about 16 or no, yes about 1630 or something like that. He wanted us aboard half an hour before they sailed and he wanted our assurance that we would be there. We said “yes, we will be there”. We didn’t all go ashore, about half of us did. You can naturally guess where we went. They were a open at the time. Had a very enjoyable day. In fact we forgot the time and we just made it back to the ship. We only made it back about quarter of an hour, they were actually hauling in the gangways, when we got back, but we made it. As we went up the gangway I as usual, being a fleet footed gentleman, I fell over myself at the top of the gangway. Anyway I suspect the run ashore helped and I landed at the feet of a young lady, who had been watching us come up the gangway. All the passengers were from what I remember. Next day, this young lady was very amused at my arrival and that young lady finally turned out to be my wife of 63 years. When we got back to New Zealand and got sorted out, went to the Dunedin and went on leave. Her family had shifted from Auckland, they went down to Matararu in the South Island. Naturally I went on leave after I saw her mother and father, I went on leave to Matararu in the South Island. From there of course as I say that affair had developed and it lasted for 63, oh we were in our 63rd year when she died.
You had a family ?
Yes, three girls over the years. Three girls were born to us and one died during the River Plate affair.
Yes I want to ask you about that later on if I may.
You went to HMS Dunedin ?
HMS Dunedin yes.
She had replaced Chatham had she ?
She replaced Chatham while I was in England. Chatham was a good ship, a very good ship. She was replaced later by, not replaced, she was joined later by Diomede. The Diomede and Chatham were well known around New Zealand and around the Pacific for quite a few years after that. They were good ships to be in, they were comfortable, a little cramped but they were comfortable and everybody was happy.
There is one thing about the New Zealand Navy is that in my Naval experience which lasted of course from 1921 until 1945, the average New Zealand sailor was a very happy man. His pay wasn’t all that excellent. In fact we were chopped during another depression 10% which we never got back. This caused one day prior to the Second World War the first and the only open mutiny I ever saw in the New Zealand Navy. I did go through the mutiny in the British Navy during my period over there. The British Navy went on strike and they had a lot of difficulty convincing the sailors that they are not allowed to go on strike and all the rest of it.
Was that the time of Invergordon you are talking about ?
I am just coming to that. I will tell you that. I will jump in here.
When we were in Invergordon I was still on the Revenge and I went up on to the Flag Deck one morning for colours which was my job. There wasn’t anybody around. I can tell you this nobody said a word to me, I didn’t know what was going on, I was absolutely green. I appeared on the Flag Deck, it was a big Flag Deck, huge ship. I appeared on the Flag Deck and was all ready to grasp the ensign and take it aft and hoist it myself, I was still then a Signalman, I hadn’t been rated and my job was to hoist the ensign. Well there was nobody there to help me, and I didn’t see a soul on the ships bridge and we usually had 15 men in a watch. It wasn’t until I had been on deck and wondering what on earth was going on, I looked across at the accompanying destroyers and cruisers and battleships and the usual collection of Naval vessels at Invergordon. Nothing was doing all was quiet, no ensigns were hoisted. Then the Quarter Deck phone rang and a voice said “Officer of the Watch speaking”, I can hear him now and I said told him who I was, and he said “bring the ensign aft”, we will hoist it and we did it ourselves. It wasn’t until then that I realized the whole dammed Fleet was on strike.
What year was that ?
It would be about 31, no before that 31, no 31 was the big earthquake in Napier.
Sorry you were changing your mind it was ….
Well you have got to grab me by the neck and make me readjust now and again. Memories can be fickle.
Not for a young chap like you
Anyway, we got over the Invergordon affair by Churchill telling the Fleet a lot of lies and the Fleet believing them. They never got what they wanted in any case. I think it was 9 tried and true British sailors got very severe sentences. Well that’s the way of the Navy. They were promised that they wouldn’t be harmed. They weren’t harmed but they were shoved into chokey just the same so that was that side of it.
Now later on you, after you got married. You in fact went back to U.K. did you not ?
Oh yes, I never refused any offer to go overseas. I was sent for one day by the Skipper and told that as I had passed provisionally for Yeoman of Signals, it was just about time that something was done and Navy Office decided to send me plus another 4 or 5 other jokers overseas.
(end of Tape 2)
(beginning of Tape 3)
Now Sir you were just telling me that you were about to go overseas again, I think for a Yeoman’s Course ?
Yes that’s right.
As far as myself was concerned it was interesting but other than that. I did the Yeoman’s Course and we had better get the matter of the years cleared up here.
Yes please do.
That would be about….
1930 I think
Roughly 1930 and it would have been around 1930, yes about 5 years before the outbreak of War. I did the Yeoman’s Course and did a short time in the Fleet. I went back to my old ship and I forget the name of it. I went to a destroyer and did some time on her, not very long and then came back to New Zealand.
Now I see later on, I have a drafting card here that only covers part of your career. I see in the 1930’s that again you were in the mid 1930’s you were back with the Royal Navy.
You served in two very interesting ships. What were they ?
The two interesting ships that you are referring to. One was the Barham, Barham and the other was the mighty Hood. In fact I think I have in my possession at the moment a photograph album that I purchased while I was in the Hood. I don’t think that there is another one in New Zealand, I very much doubt there is in New Zealand, I very much doubt there is in New Zealand – it is rather unique. The Barham was in the First Battle Squadron in the Mediterranean. The preliminary movements for the Second World War following His Majesty’s abdication and following one or two other political moves in England and Germany. The Second World War was very, very slowly coming to a boil.
Well I went to the Barham out in the Med and we were on the, off the Coast of Morocco when one of the most dreadful things happened. We were always horrified. One morning, I got into severe trouble over it, but I will tell you. One morning I had taken over as the Yeoman of Signals, I had taken over the watch on deck, the Signal Watch and two destroyers suddenly appeared out to sea, firing astern. Of course it was the Spanish Civil War was in the process of being born. They were followed very suddenly by a cruiser, British built, a Spanish cruiser from the Republican side of things. She was firing at the destroyer. Well of course as it was an action taking place, and I will tell you the Navy standard on this shortly, but as an action was taking place and an action at sea, I said to my blokes on the Flag Deck “hells bells, this is an unexpected sort of business”. These destroyers were belting like hell in our direction and they were firing astern. The cruiser, the Canaris, she was belting after them as hard as she could go and she was puffing the stuff out as hard as she could. Neither of them was hitting each other at the moment. I went to the Quarter Deck phone, couldn’t get an answer, so I grabbed the phone to the Skipper’s Cabin, now this will tickle you, you being what you are. I grabbed the Skipper’s, the phone to the Skipper’s Cabin. He answered the phone himself. I said “Yeoman of the Watch speaking”. “Yes Yeoman, what makes you ring me”. I said “there is a battle going on to the North of us, two Spanish Destroyers are engaging, one Spanish Republic cruiser”. That caused a stir down aft I can tell you. Anyway the two destroyers, one suddenly stopped a whallop right amidships and she blew up, she just simply disintegrated, they landed a beauty somewhere in the vicinity of the engine room. She just simply went to pieces.
Well the cruiser let her be, but she finally sank the second destroyer, she hit her somewhere or other, very destructive and finally she went down by the bows and they were only about 10 cables away from us by then, yes about 10 cables away. We watched those men in the water. Now in company with us, I must tell you this, were Germans, French, other British ships we were an international Fleet, Italian and a Greek all in company but nobody could do a dammed thing. It was a Civil War between people in Spain and it was nothing to do with us, except to observe, that was our duty. We observed alright.
Then I saw the horrors of War. The Canaris lay off I should say about 50 yards from the men in the water and we thought “good”. By that time the Skipper had arrived on deck and was up topsides. We all thought “good” they are going to rescue them, the poor devils. They didn’t, they shot them. They opened fire with light machine and heavy machine guns and they belted hell out of them. They weren’t so far away that you couldn’t see them. I remember you know that the Mediterranean is a bluey sort of an ocean and there was blood every where. I was pretty sick in the gut at what I saw and I thought “War”. I didn’t realize it wouldn’t be long before I was in one myself. However she sank both, she killed the survivors, she never rescued one person, she killed the lot, shot them at point blank range. Well the after math of that was everything was quiet. I went off watch, recorded everything in my log, it will still be in the log in Admiralty and went off watch. In the middle of the afternoon I was sent for. The Captain wants you aft. Any way I went aft and I reported to the Officer of the Watch, “I understand that the Captain wants me”. He said “you rang the Captain this morning”, this is the Navy for sure. He said “you rang the Captain this morning”. I said “yes Sir, there was an action at sea, somebody had to tell him, I rang the Quarter Deck, I got no answer, so I rang the Captain direct”. The Officer of the Watch said “well you are in trouble”. I said “so be it, whets the trouble for Sir”. He said “you had no right in informing the Captain direct, he should have been informed through the Officer of the Watch”. At the time and I still think it was a real blank, knock out blow if you like. How the hell could I inform the Officer of the Watch if he didn’t answer his bloody phone. I was told to report to the Master at Arms and of course as anybody connected with the sea knows that the Master at Arms, is Senior man on the Lower Deck. I reported to him and he laughed and he said “you are in the …. four letter word”, so next morning I had to go before the Commander, the Commander had no option. He put me in the Captain’s report. That was at 9 o’clock. The Captain’s report was 11 o’clock. I thought bless my heart and soul there’s the bloody spaniolias, shooting their own guts out and I cop a Captain’s report for it. I went down to Captain’s report and this is what happened. It shows you how some Captain’s have got heart anyway. He said “what made you ring me, Yeoman ?”. So I told him ” I said well nobody answered the blooming Quarter Deck phone and I couldn’t run down, I couldn’t send a messenger, I mean its a big ship the Barham it would have just like a Rugby field”. I can see the Skipper now, he was a good fellow. He said “alright, you know of course you should have passed the message through the proper line of communications”, “yes Sir, but I couldn’t because nobody answered the phone, and if I didn’t do something I would be in the cactus properly.” He said “alright next time you see a fight going on at sea try and get the Officer of the Watch, if you can’t get the Officer of the Watch, do what you just did – dismissed”.
Out here we had an Admiral, Admiral Blake, oh what a fine man he was. I got into the same sort of dammed trouble and I will just tell you quickly.
After I had returned to New Zealand I was aboard the Dunedin as a Yeoman then. Admiral Blake used to love his morning swim. This is a memory of the old days. He used to go for his little paddle in the water and we used to watch him from the Bridge and what we used to think was “you silly bugger, why the hell don’t you stay in your bunk and have a good snooze”, this is about 7, 0730 in the morning you see. This particular morning, it seemed to be my luck to strike trouble. Admiral Blake was having his swim, I was waiting for colours, Yeoman’s duties is to supervise the colours and I was waiting for the hoisting of the Ensign and the Jack and we were in, wait a minute I can’t remember where we were. We were in Auckland and all of a sudden Admiral started waving his arms in the air and diving under and coming up again and waving like hell and diving again and coming up. I grabbed the old familiar phone, got the Quarter Deck this time, but the bloke, the Boatswain’s Mate at the end of the phone got himself all tied up and couldn’t make out what the hell I was talking about. I said “look the Admiral’s bloody well drowning, for Christ’s sake do something about it”. He had a little dingy that he used to swim out and dive off this dingy, it was his own and then back into the dingy and back to the ship. No escort, but in this case he couldn’t because he had had a heart attack. The Boatswain Mate at the end of the telephone was in a dither so I thought hell here is more trouble for me. I rang the Skipper’s Cabin, not the Skipper, the Commander, I rang the Commander’s Cabin, told him what had happened, there was a hullabaloo went on down aft. They sent a boat away, they got him in, he had had a heart attack. He recovered and I got bloody Commander’s report again for doing the same thing that I had done once before. I never thought it would happen to me twice, but it did, truly. This time of course with the Admiral having a heart attack and the Admiral also for having a particular liking for one Bully Martinson, Yeoman of the Signals, I had to report to him more than once on duty, I got away with it.
I should jolly well think so.
That’s how tough the Navy was.
Now the last job you had in the Royal Navy before the War I think of significance was in Malta, is that right ?
We’ll deal with that if you like and get it over.
I had much pleasure, I did 5 years straight except for one short break in England. I did 5 years, I think we did 2 months in England. I went to the Hood and I was Chief Yeoman of the Hood, and we were detailed to the Coronation of King George the sixth. We were on the way, the Spanish Civil War was not definitely over, and on the way to England we were belting up the coast at a fairly high speed, and she can she move, 42 knots was her top speed. We received a panic signal from the Royal Oak. Poor old Royal Oak it was being bombed off the Spanish Coast. About 5 aircraft were trying to knock hell out of her. Why they picked the Royal Oak don’t ask me because she was a British ship.
Whose aircraft the Spanish ?
Spanish yes and they were bombing the poor old Royal Oak. Any way, we put on speed and we got in. Royal Oak had been splattered but not seriously with muck from up top, from the air. Further up the Coast, it was our day of fun. Further up the Coast we were steaming up after we had finished with the Royal Oak, we were steaming up the Coast when we heard more firing. We went inside the 3 mile limit just to have a look, 3 mile limit in those days. We turned in just to have a look. Mind you we had our 15 inch all ready and our 6 inch. We were ready if they opened fire on us. Bless my heart and soul there was a famous, on one way or an infamous in the other direction, a British Merchant ship commanded by Captain Jones who was known as `Potato Jones’. He was known as `Potato Jones’ because among his various exploits was the running of cargo, breaking the blockade around the Coast. He used to take a ship load of spuds discharge them and hop it with his pockets full of good old, Spaniole coins. This particular day the fort ashore had had a gut full of him and as he was leaving harbour they opened fire on him. One of the funniest sights, and it was funny. He would shoot ahead at speed, then stop and therefore as the forts would generally win in any case between ship and shore. When the forts opened fire they would boom, he had stopped and the shells would fall ahead of him. Then he would shoot ahead and they would fire and their shells would fall astern. This went on for about 20 minutes. Poor old `Potato Jones’, you had to see it to believe it, there was a hellish amount of high explosive going up in the air and there was `old Potato Jones’ dodging, zig zagging right left and centre and on the Hood we had closed up at action stations. On the Hood on the flag deck very much subdued cheering went on every time the Spanioles missed. He got out of it alright. That was his last blockade attempt, he didn’t do any more. He was famous in England for breaking the blockade and for feeding the Spanish.
Now you want to know about Malta and that and I will tell you about that. May as well while I am on the job.
Malta Signal School had been instituted during the War, the First World War and then it had carried on as a Fleet Signal School where Instructors were sent ashore to instruct the lads in the various grades of signals for their various Courses when they went to England. I had the fortune and myself and another New Zealander Percy Fredrick, we had the fortune any way of sitting for and gaining what they called in those days V.S.1 – Visual Signalman First Class. It was the top rate that you could hold. Next to Signal Boatswain. The idea of the rate was to assist in the very slow influx of signal persons. They weren’t getting enough and they had to have somebody who was qualified in teaching Lower Rates their job. He had to be properly qualified, so he was a man of experience as I was and so was Percy.
When I went to Malta I was in the Hood. As I say I was Chief Yeoman in the Hood and I wasn’t very popular because I was a New Zealander and the Englishmen weren’t too pleased at a blooming Colonial being their boss you know. However the Signal Boatswain in the Hood a nice little bloke, he lost his wife in the War, Second World War. He asked me if I would like a spell ashore and I said yes. I had never done a spell ashore in Malta, it sounded alright to me. I had been out there getting on for 4 years then. He sent the necessary signals and I transferred to Valleta which was the Barracks of the Signal School. I took a few Classes through and got myself a bit of a name among the Pommy Juniors, always having them on and all the rest of it. I thoroughly enjoyed that period because it gave me an opportunity to observe life in Malta. While I was the Instructor there, there was four Instructors, I was the senior one and the others were Petty Officers both Radio and Signals. It was there that I saw a sight, that I don’t think many have seen. That is one day one of the lads asked me had I ever been below ground in the Barracks and I said “no, what do I want to go below ground for ?”, I said “I am quite happy above the ground, not underneath it”. He said “well I will take you down below when ever you are ready and I will show you something that has been there for hundreds of years”. We went down below, went down through various mantraps and manholes. Now underneath the Barracks of Valleta were hundreds, not two or three but hundreds of skeletons. I don’t know if you have ever seen them.
No I haven’t.
They were chained to the walls as they were during the time of the Wars, the Wars that took place three or four hundred years ago between Malta and the people of Italy and Europe for the suppression of Malta to bring them into European hands which they never did. The Maltese won all the battles. St Johns were the people.
The Order of St Johns.
The Order of St Johns were the people who led the attacks on Malta. I have never seen such a grizzly and I don’t want to ever see it again. Down there chained to walls with the chains around their ankles and what was left of their necks if their heads hadn’t fallen off were dozens and dozens of skeletons. As far as I know they are still there.
Yes, that is one of the things that I saw that opened my eyes a bit and made me feel a bit funny in the tummy.
Well there you are Malta was a good place to serve in. The Maltese were nice people, everybody likes them.
You’ve been to Malta ?
Yes many times.
Anyone that knows them. They are jolly good
(end of Tape 3)
(beginning of Tape 4)
Now Sir at the end of the last reel we had just finished with your time in Malta. I would like to move on if I may to your time in Achilles.
Away you go
I went to Barracks first. I went home from, as we called it in those days, from the S.T.C. and from Malta, parted company. Went home in a Troop ship to Portsmouth to the R.N. Barracks there. When I got in to Barracks they told me they had got a nice job for me. When I made investigations I found out that I was going back to my own Navy to the Achilles. I didn’t mind that at all. I took leave first, then told my wife what was occurring. And Achilles was having a short refit in Pompey Dockyard and down I went.
Things had been done in a bit of rush because we all knew War was over our shoulders and the point to make is that my movements were immaterial as a mere Chief Yeoman but very important to me. Any way Navy Office finally got a signal through to R.N. Barracks that they wanted me to join Achilles as soon as possible. Away I went, went aboard, I was the surprise packet of the Commission I think. The unfortunate thing that occurred was that she had one Yeoman aboard a New Zealander, a nice chap, a good boy. He didn’t realize there was a New Zealand Chief out in the Mediterranean, none of them did I had been forgotten, and after 5 years out there I am not surprised. I reported aboard saw the Jaunty and the necessary people and then reported to the Captain. He knew that I was coming, Captain Parry. He gave me the usual greetings that a Captain does to a subordinate and then told me that he would like me, he told me there that day that he would like me to shake my staff up. He said they were all New Zealanders, I only think I had it was about 12. They were good boys but they had never seen a War and they didn’t know what War was and I had. I had seen the bitterness of it from the sea. Later on as we go through this little story, you remember that I told you about the Canaris a Spanish cruiser sinking two destroyers, that has got a very important bearing as we go along. I will tell you why later.
Any way I found Achilles and made myself known, settled down in the Mess. I went up on the Bridge which was my home, naturally, and I couldn’t find anybody. However I finally found the phones inside the S.D.O. and as I was mucking around, having a look around the S.D.O. and wondering what sort of crowd I had run into, I heard steps and turned around and the Yeoman came in the door. Any rate he got the shock of his life to see a Chief Yeoman looking at him. I said “Chiefy Martinson and your Robertshaw”. We greeted each other. I didn’t find out until some time later that the lad was not very cheerful to see me because he had the idea in his head that he was, he brought the ship home and he was going to be the king pin. You know what people our sailors are. That was the first thing that happened. Then I told him that I would like to see all my staff. We didn’t have a Signal Officer. We had a Divisional Officer, but we didn’t have anybody in charge of Signals, just usual cruiser business you see.
Then next thing I found out who the Officer was and he was the birdman and he was in charge of the Walrus and he used to fly the Walrus, you know the aircraft.
Who was that ?
I can’t think of his name just at the moment, he was killed in the War. I will come to it later as far as his name goes. He was killed in the Second World War. Actually when the Dunedin went down I was told, he was aboard the Dunedin when she was caught in the Atlantic. However I will think of his name shortly. He was a very nice chap and I went and reported to him as he was the Divisional Officer and made myself known. He asked me, this was the next morning after joining her. He asked me this and that and the other about my experience etc.,etc. He said “well it is on your shoulders I know nothing of signals” that sort of thing. He said “I can fly a bird but you can fly your staff, that is good enough for me”, so I took over.
The thing was we left U.K. I think we did 10 to 14 days exercises, with the Atlantic Fleet outside of Pompey. During that time my lads did all they could to catch me out. They were dammed unlucky I knew the book backwards and most of them will tell you that. In any case we did our 14 days, I should say exercises, with the various destroyer units, cruisers and the rest of them from the Home Fleet who were on their way to Gib and exercises in that part of the world.
Then we caught up with them again and had some more exercises. I think my boys were just about chock a block with exercises. But the exercises were the thing. With the War looming the only thing that would keep us straight. We got to Gib, had a bit of leave and then some more exercises. Then we packed our bags and made our way back to New Zealand. When we got back to Auckland, as I told you before with War looming and things needing doing, my first and big task was to break the boys in to the Mediterranean method of doing things. Well the Mediterranean way was in those days, the way, and that’s what I was trained for and that’s what I did. It was exercise in the morning, everybody except the morning watchman, that’s in harbour. Exercise from 2 or 3 in the afternoon until I knew that I more or less had the ropes in my hand as I wanted them. You know what I mean. It was either exercise or misexercise. By exercise I mean with particularly flag signals, due to W.T. silence in action and which was necessary in those days. Semaphore, hand signalling, Morse all the works and I don’t think I over did it but I do know that I pushed them to the limit. It paid off though at the River Plate. It certainly paid off. Any way we did our time in Auckland and then along came the 3rd September and the big bang and we had taken off just before that. We took off in early September, no about the middle of September for, no the middle of August rather not September, middle of August, I stand corrected rightly, for Panama. Our plane which was badly needed for reconnaissance, was out of action and we needed another one. Some frantic signals were made to Admiralty. The best we could find out was that they had one available and it would be sent to Panama for us, but we didn’t get to Panama. So as far as I know its still there.
Any way we got half way across the Pacific and we received orders to alter course for South America and further orders will be sent later. This we did and away we went and we finished up in Valparaiso. That was the beginning of the big task. Our job was to patrol, it was a devil of a job too. Keep an eye open for as many German ships as we could collect from the Western Coast of South America, around the Horn and up the Eastern Coast, we did that two or three times and visited all the possible ports. We met up with a few German ships reported their whereabouts to Admiralty and so forth and so on. We never took over any ourselves. We had enough to do with the patrol work. And one or two places we visited, particularly on the Eastern Coast, we were a bit suspicious a couple of times, I know the Skipper was, because so called friendly planes used to fly over-head and then disappear and just come over quick enough to have a look at you and away again. People can be suspicious about that sort of thing. Any way it was a boring job, but I can’t name all the ships now, we met a few Germans here. Particularly up on the Western Coast we met one or two, like the Tacoma and so forth but we just noted their whereabouts and left it at that. We didn’t make any boarding party jobs what ever. That was the boring part of that cruise.
As a lead up to the Plate. The Graf-Spee made a very bad mistake. We knew she had been sinking British ships and our Navigator had been tracing her movements on our map on the compass platform and he had come to the conclusion and very rightly so and I was there when he told the Skipper, the Captain, that it looked very much as of Graf-Spee was drifting in our direction, – he put it that way, drifting in our direction. This was about a week before the actual action, we thought, all in the ship thought, we were all in it. The Captain thought it was about time that we had a couple of exercises as to what we would do in the event of meeting the Graf-Spee at any particular time, day or night. Ajax was coming down to meet us and Exeter was coming up to meet us. About 3 nights before the action, we had a night exercise. We didn’t want to do too much of it in case we gave our own position away to her, we didn’t know where she was actually. It was all cat and mouse business. We carried out a night action as it would happen if we met her and if we met her by day or by night, it was a sort of by guess and by God action. What we actually did and we did it through twice in one night, was the exact manoeuvres we did carry out when we did meet her. That is in theory the Exeter lay off having the larger gun and the longest range. She lay off to the so called south because we knew that Graf-Spee was coming in such a direction that she would be more or less in a north westerly position from us you see. We carried out our exercises to the best of our ability with Ajax and did exactly the same manoeuvring dammed near per the book as we did when we finally joined up with her.
Now I told you about during the Spanish Civil War when the Canaris sank two opposing destroyers. Well the Battle of the River Plate very nearly was a copy book cover of that except that there was three of us and one Graf-Spee. There were two destroyers and one Canaris Cruiser. I as a Lower Decker – I’m not supposed to have very great ideas, but I wasn’t in the Signal Staff for nothing nor a Chief of one either – and I always remembered that the Canaris sank one, made sure she got her bird, put her down, then turned all her power, gun power on to the second destroyer. Sank her, `Bob’s your Uncle’. She won the battle. What happened with us was in the first part a copy of that battle off the Spanish Coast. It was about 6.30, roughly 6.30 in the morning and I enjoyed half an hour of it afterwards. Then after that I was just a combat case. Roughly 6.30 in the morning, that things began to really buzz. I was sitting in my office, Signals Distributing Office. We had been to morning daylight defence stations, dispersed and we had a nice calm, beautiful morning. I was sitting drinking a cup of brew, a cup of tea and every thing was a bit peaceful and then there was a hell of a scurry and rush and a youngster stuck his head in the door “enemy in sight Chief”, you know shouting his head off. Of course up to the compass platform to my proper place by the Captain to report on anything I should see him. The first thing I saw was a blob of smoke on the horizon. And according to the Navigator who was at his compass table, that was it. According to his pre-detailed planning, that was it.
You couldn’t see the upper works of the ship ?
Not yet, she very quickly came into sight. But these pocket Battleships were very hard to see, very good you know, they were well built, they were well thought out.
Had you gone to action stations at this stage ?
We went to action stations at the same time. It was about 6.30 in the morning and everybody closed up. I think everybody was relieved that at last, I do honestly I think everybody was relieved at last the weight was off our shoulders. Here it was, it was on. I really think that everybody concerned in the business, it was quite a weight around your neck you go to turn in your hammock or turn in your bed where ever you were, you didn’t know what was going to happen 5 minutes later. Well it had to happen, so we were happy in that respect.
Now lets go back. The next thing that happened, per Kings Rules and Regulations, very definite instructions about this – was the hoisting of our Battle Ensigns. I had selected the biggest we had got and what we called 14 breadth, they were real big fellows. This is the story of that. There was a lot of kerfuffle and talk and newspaper reports and other media reports and other stuff about the flying of the New Zealand flag by Achilles in the battle. They were quite right, but they had it all wrong how it happened. I knew how it happened, Captain Parry knew how it happened. How it happened was simply that the night before the battle I was sitting in the D.O. as I say and I heard one of our youngsters talking outside to another Signalman and I heard him say something that set me thinking. He said “what do we do about ensigns in the morning, has Chief told you”. Ensigns, ensigns, ensigns, why the blue ensign, why not the New Zealand ensign, there is nothing in the regulations that says you can’t, there was nothing that said that you could. White ensign, but we were the Zealand Division of the Royal Navy then.
When I went down to the Captain with the log after colours I asked permission to speak as you do to a superior Officer, particularly your Captain, even though I was his Chief. He said “yes, whets on your mind”. Captain Parry was a man you could talk to, he listened and he said yes or he said no. I said to him, “well I over heard a conversation last night and it strikes me we are going into action, we know we are going into action, whether we float or sink is another matter. Why can’t we fly the New Zealand ensign at the main ?”. He said, first of all he said “no, aren’t we supposed to fly the white ensign”. This was between him and me. I said “but it doesn’t say we can’t fly a blue one” which was true. After some consideration he looked at me and he said “can we ask Navy Office’s permission”. I said “no Sir, it’s W.T. silence”. “Oh I’d forgotten”. “No Sir, it is W.T. silence, we can’t break W.T. silence for such a small matter”, we would have given ourselves right away. He said “alright put up the biggest one you’ve got, we’ll fly it”. That’s how it happened. The simple story of it, as simple as that. I went away happy. Captain Parry carried on walking up and down. He had enough on his mind without dammed things like blue ensigns and all that. That was my trigger not his. Next morning of course half past 6, ruffle and scuffle and there she was.
Well I think and I still think and I don’t give a damn what the history books say or the blokes that write history. They write history because its hind sight to them. We who helped make a little bit of history, with us its fact. When I saw Flag 8 flying in Exeter and an ensign and I saw the fact that Ajax was pouring out smoke and she increased, I was up then on the compass platform, next to the Skipper where I should be, and we were making speed signals as we increased speed and turning signals as we turned and so forth and so on to get into the most advantageous position for firing tin fish, torpedoes and also firing ourselves. Well there is one thing, there was no fear in the gut or any of that business. I have been through part of it before you know, it was automatic. Then she opened fire. Well she had the wood on us, she had the range. We opened fire.
What distance was she when she opened fire ?
Oh she would be about 30 thousand yards, we had an extreme range of 24 thousand. She had the wood on us for range. I don’t know what happened in Graf-Spee, and nobody on this earth knows what happened in Graf-Spee. When she opened fire she did the right thing. She did exactly as the Canaris had done in the Spanish Civil War.
(end of Tape 4)
(beginning of Tape 5)
Now Sir you were saying that the Graf-Spee made a mistake.
That is my opinion as a mere Chief Yeoman who was brought up very much to study battles at sea and manoeuvrability and all the rest of it.
Well I don’t know what was in the Captain’s mind, nobody does. When she first engaged us she did the right thing. There has been a lot of blokes write books about it and enjoyed themselves and all the rest of it, but they weren’t there.
When she opened fire she opened fire on the Exeter. That was the correct thing to do because the Exeter was the heaviest armed. She was the biggest ship and she was the meat in the bacon. She should be eliminated as soon as possible because she would be the big trouble. Well he did. I watched him blow her B Turret sky high. I watched him knock her admidships, bang her about aft, but he didn’t finish the job. He had her half sunk and she went back to Port Stanley half under water. She got there, with British guts. He did not finish her off. Therefore he didn’t win that part of the battle. Why he didn’t I don’t know. You may have an idea I don’t know. In my book, and for all that I was taught about gunnery and gunnery tactics which we had to learn more or less to understand signals, if you have a man down on his knees you put him on his blooming belly and finish him off. He didn’t, he let Exeter go. Something went wrong because he took us both on then. He took us on and he took the Ajax on too. Well he damaged the Ajax. I was still on deck when he did that. He damaged the Ajax and we got some very near misses, but he didn’t actually damage us. We had a few holes here and there, shrapnel holes but he didn’t damage us much in the next half hour. Then of course I got mine. He did put one 11 inch very close, it was a beautiful shot. Only wanted another 10 feet and we would have gone to glory on the Bridge the whole lot of us but it just dropped short. The shot got me, the part that exploded and got me and the Captain he got shrapnel wounds in the leg, should have really got the lot of us, but it didn’t fate being as it were, I was knocked out.
What time of the day was that ?
Oh this was about, oh about half past 6, be around just after 7. It was the strongest part of action actually.
You got wounded in the leg ?
Yes I got wounded, oh I got mutilated. From then I only know what the history books say.
You were unconscious.
I was unconscious and out, from then on. I do remember one thing about the aftermath of the battle. In cruisers, destroyers of that size, if you got hit in action and you were still alive, Sick Bay was not available because Sick Bay had one or two sick blokes in it. What they did with me, they just picked me up, took me down and dumped me on the Boy’s Mess Deck to recover or die. I didn’t die. What happened was that I was laying on top of the lockers, and I was in pain then and I was thinking “well this is it, well so be it” when one of my Signalmen arrived with a tot of rum. Now it wasn’t an ordinary tot of rum. It was about 3 tots of rum in one bottle and I will never forget it, it was neat. He said “how are you Chief ?”. Anyway I took the tot of rum. I think that helped me to fight everything that happened because after I had that tot of rum I was ready for the world. Anyway then I was transferred to Sick Bay. What happened up top is all history, anybody can read about it any time, various books. In the Sick Bay was my worst period because I had only been in the Sick Bay about a day and a bit and I didn’t really know what was wrong with me. The doctor’s doing their best, staunching the blood and all that sort of thing and patching up where they could. My knee was mangled to glory they couldn’t give me a new knee, had no hope and I was hit in various other parts, a bit in the right hip and so on, so they enjoyed themselves pulling out bits and pieces. About 7.30 in the evening after the chase was on up top, as accounts of battle will tell you it developed from a fight to a chase. While the chase was on up top I could hear the occasional boom, boom and the Signalman came down and put me in touch with what was going on. The Captain himself appeared, he’d left the Bridge and left it to somebody else to shoot the works for a while because they were just busy chasing the Graf-Spee then and it was night time and all they had to do was just keep astern of her, make sure that she went the right way in her body. He came down and he asked me how I felt. I told him I didn’t feel good naturally. He said “well I have got a piece of news for you”. So I can remember quite well, and I thought, “what the devil can the piece of news be”. I knew we were or had been under W.T. silence. As far as I knew we were still, but we weren’t. When we broke into action the Ajax had decided to break W.T. silence. He said “I’ve had some bad news from Navy Office in Wellington”. I wasn’t in the state to receive bad news or good news or any old bloody news I was just in a state where I wanted to sleep and finish with it. However the Captain sat along side me and he said “I must give you the news, it is my duty to do so”, and he burst out crying. He was a fine man you know, he was a man of feeling and emotion. He said “I am sorry to tell you that your eldest daughter Joan has passed away”. You can imagine, but we won’t delve into it. You can just imagine I mean it couldn’t have happened at a worse time in a man’s life and she was a favourite daughter you see.
This is something that the Captain saw fit to tell you himself ?
That’s right. You see well there was a communication between me and Captain Parry. Well the communication that should be between all human beings. He knew me, I knew him. His status was far above mine but my status as a human being held good. He gave me the bad news and I took it and I developed double pneumonia and I have sure got the aftermath of it now. I know very well in this weather now that we are getting now, it is very bad. It is not a nice period put it that way. Anyway he left me to it and the Sick Berth Attendant his name slips me, he was a very fine fellow, he and the Doctor. The Doctor by the way was an Eye Doctor from Auckland. I should have told you.
Dr Pittar was it ?
Dr Pittar he was RNZNVR you know. He did his best for me and for others, I was not the only one. He did his best for the living and a good man he was and I pulled through alright but I have never been the same since. Even after when I look back over 50 years now, I have never been the same. Not the same man.
You got a gallantry Medal ?
Yes, yes I was in Auckland. They didn’t have a hospital for wounded people at all. That’s a very funny thing. All they had in Auckland, I don’t think that they really knew there was a bloody War on you know. I don’t think they realized that people get shot up in War. When we got back to Auckland in spite of all the hoorays and the flag waving as the boys marched up Queen Street and all the rest of it, they didn’t seem to know what the hell to do with me and the other wounded jokers, of which there were three more. They didn’t seem to know what the hell to do with us. They put us in Auckland Hospital. You have got to remember that we had come across the Pacific, from the Falkland Islands to Auckland non-stop on our return journey. We were wounded jokers and the Doctors that we had were adequate but that’s all. If amputations had had to take place, or any very bad drop in our health had taken place, we were in a bit of stew. Any way we got safely to Auckland and they didn’t know what, I don’t think they knew what the hell to do with us anyway. They put us in Auckland Hospital for a start in what they called the General Hospital, in the General Ward. They pulled some more gunshot stuff out of my leg and so forth and so on. Then one day the Charge Nurse came in and she said “oh where’s your uniform”, I said “in the Locker there”. I wasn’t feeling very much like wearing any flaming uniform at the time. She said “well you have got to put it on tonight”. I said “what the hell for”. She said “haven’t you heard the news”. I said “no I haven’t listened to any news. “oh” she said. As she spoke the Surgeon in charge of my case came in Maurice Exall, bloody fine man, first class, he’s dead now, first class man, nothing wrong with him as a man or as a gentleman. He said “congratulations”. They knew more than I bloody well did. I said “what’s all the hullaballoo”, you know. They said “well it has just come over the BBC News about a couple of hours ago that you and some others, the other boys in the bloody battle, I wasn’t the only bloke there had been granted this and that”. Three or four of us, I think it was about three of us got the DSM and others got something else and something else. Oh well they had mucked us up a bit. To think that we had been recognized. I didn’t expect any medals out of that battle.
I have got to say this and I say it with all faith in humility. That those lads that I drove nearly half mad at flag signal exercises twice a day and at Morse signalling exercises at night, they knew their stuff. They knew A from B and they also knew that when you went into action if you don’t know your stuff you are gone.
You taught them well.
I say with all due respect to anybody that ever listens to this thing, that I did the job that Mediterranean Fleet Signal Officers taught me. Do your job and do it well and if you have done that you’ve done everything.
Well that’s my story. I really have nothing more to say except that I am proud to say that I finished, after a couple of years in Hospital, I came back to the Service in which I was proud to serve. They sent me home from the Hospital half patched up and I had a call from the Commanding Officer of Philomel. He didn’t want to lose the brain I had got with the Signal experience I had got he didn’t want to lose. He spoke to me on the phone and he asked me himself, Commander Elworthy, if I was willing – I had not been discharged from the Navy I was still on the Navy’s books. He asked me was I willing to see the War out as a non-combatant, that is as a trainer of signalmen and such and on the phone I said “yes”. He told me if I could go down and see him in his office when I felt fit enough to do so, he would tell me my duties. I went down, I saw him. I volunteered for service until the end of the War. I was proud of my uniform, I was damned proud of the boys that fought at the Plate. I thought to myself well if I can do something that’s going to help, well I will do it, so I did and I finished off my service in 1945 in Philomel. I put many Signalmen through, good and bad, but all for the same reason, fight a war and that was that.
Well Mr Martinson I want to thank you very sincerely for giving me your time as an 85 year old, with one leg, which you also gave for your country. Your life has been unique in many ways and you don’t need me to say that. I am glad that I have got a good part of it, certainly the Naval part on tape and it will be available for other people in future.
Thank you very much Sir.
(end of interview)