Telegraphist Paul de Havilland McGee – Oral History

It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mr McGee. 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.

This is an interview taking place on the 27th May 2003 with Mr Paul de Havilland McGee at his residence 1 Craigeburn Street, Darfield, Canterbury. The Interviewer is Lieutenant T.K. de Castro RNZNVR (Rtd).

Paul you were born in Christchurch on the 6th January 1920 and you were educated initially at Elmwood Primary School in Merivale and then at Christchurch Boys High. You lived with?

My grandmother and aunt and brother and sister.

So they officially brought you up at that stage of your life?

Yes when I was five.

These as we all know were the years of the Depression. So in 1936 aged 16 presumably you went into the workforce?

Yes I had to leave school prematurely at the end of the second year.

You worked where then?

At the Papanui Post Office as a message boy delivering telegrams and emptying boxes of mail.

Even though at a very young age you had some experience of the Territorials?

Correct I was in the Post Office Corp of Signals.

Which was attached to the Army?

Yes we had camps at Burnham and places like that.

You enjoyed that?

Yes very much so. Great comradeship.

In the meantime I think you were telling me that you learnt the Morse code?

Yes I learnt the Morse code while in the Army and subsequently in the Post Office itself before I became a telegraphist I learnt the Morse code. I first got into it in Scouts.

So it was second nature to you?

Absolutely second nature to me. No problems.

I might say at this stage of the interview, Paul you have been a radio ham, for how long?

53 years. I got my licence in 1950, that was the year my daughter was born.

Wonderful.

When I finished in my service, it was about 15 months at Papanui, I was promoted to telegraphist in the operating room area and during that time I was able to study Morse as a role because of the operating room adjacent.

So that was in the Cathedral Square in the principal Post Office?

Yes.

Presumably accuracy and speed were important, tell us about that?

Yes we had to learn Morse code to a speed of 25 words per minute before we qualified. We had to send and receive telegrams on a telegraph sounder.

Now this brings us up to August 1940 War had been going not quite a year and you volunteered for the Navy. Tell us about that.

Yes my friend Joe Rutledge and I we had mutual thoughts and I think he suggested to me that we join the Navy. We had heard that there was a shortage of telegraphists in the Royal Navy in the UK. He and I went to Wellington for a Morse Test for the Navy and had our initial training up at Devonport for about six weeks.

Both of you were ex Post Office?

We worked together in the Post Office.

So having joined and been accepted you did a six week stint of initial training at PHILOMEL. You were saying to me that was no great surprise but just a change of uniform?

Yes it was because of my previous Territorial Service. It didn’t worry me much for I enjoyed the comradeship again with these fellows in the Navy. There were 11 of us in total we came right down from Stewart Island and beyond. Alf Topi was on Ruapuki Island and he was the furthest south and he was an ex Post Office fellow at the time and he worked in Wellington Post Office and other fellows were from quite further north, Ian Forrester and Stan Speed, Stan Speed came from Kumeu north of Auckland. At the moment there are only five of us remaining.

Are you in touch with these blokes?

Yes I am with some. I am in touch with Clem Beck in Dunedin I phone him up and I have visited Jack Newman in Gore at Arrowtown just recently. The widow of Joe Rutledge was down recently in Christchurch, he died of a stroke some years back and so that was quite sad for me. He lived in Tauranga.

So after that initial training you embarked for the UK, tell us about that.

Yes five long weeks onboard the RANGITATA. It took us to Liverpool.

You travelled Third Class and sailed according to your Diary on the 30th October 1940, sailed from Wellington that is.

Yes Clem and I. Onboard ship we had a good time and made our own fun. It was good. Wonderful. They ran out of beer at Panama, they had to get some American Pabst beer to stock up.

Just going back a little bit you told me that about 200 miles out from Wellington you dropped a message into a bottle.

Yes I dropped a message into a bottle but it has never reappeared to my knowledge. I can’t remember what I put in it but it was a message to the fact that I was still alive on the ship.

You kept a diary what about some exerts from that diary?

[Reads from diary] On Monday the 4th November played deck tennis, quoits, golf. In the afternoon I met a chap who played a violin and another with a flute and we formed quite an interesting trio. We did some washing and we went to bed early.

Now you were telling me that you played the piano to make up the trio?

Yes that is correct.

[Reads from Diary] On the 11th November the swimming baths opened, we will be in tomorrow morning. Wrote letter and played table tennis together. It is getting very hot now we are about 4 thousand miles north north/east of New Zealand.

You were telling me that you went through the Panama Canal into the Atlantic that you ran into a pretty severe storm. What does your Diary have to say on that subject?

Oh well on the 4th December exceptionally big storm, hail like machine-gun bullets, 500 or so cups and saucers were broken when the ship hoved to and the cabin became a mess as it was broken by all of these waves.

On the 5th December [Reads from diary] Getting up around the north of the Irish Coast. Sighted one trawler this morning. The waves still tremendous. Saw an empty lifeboat floating by, wondered who might have been in it. The next day the 6th December The weather was the roughest the ship has ever seen and it hoved to at 2pm for about six hours. We all enjoyed the fun and we slept during the morning.

So you people eventually arrived in the RANGITATA at Liverpool on the 8th December 1940?

That’s correct.

You have shown me a very good group photograph of you all. All eleven of you.

That’s right.

On the dock at Liverpool.

Yes.

So then you set off by train you blokes for London and Chatham and I think your diary records this trip?

[Reads from diary] On Monday the 9th December we heard the first air raid warning about 6am this morning while still enroute for London. We arrived at Euston Station about 8am and the London people were just emerging from the shelters. We caught the train for Chatham and we arrived about 12.30pm and passed many damaged houses but no buildings of importance. Hundreds of trains about. Chatham is a very slummy sort of place with very cramped quarters. But luckily supposed to have the best air raid shelter in England. Today we got fitted out with a service gas mask and visited the dentist.

In Chatham Naval Barrack where we spent five months were about 11 thousand personnel.

The meals are rotten you had to fight for them. 400 in our mess and no butter.

Now that is quoting from your Diary again isn’t it?

Yes that’s right.

I have recorded here that you are getting to the instruction side at Chatham. Your Team Instructor was CPO Jones. Tell us about him and what he was teaching you?

He was appointed solely with the New Zealanders, he had 11 of us to put through a course: radio, radio theory, Morse Code and coding itself.

Paul one of the things you told me was on the 6th January 1941 you had your 21st birthday whilst you were in Chatham?

That’s right.

Tell us about that.

It was quite an event and not used to drinking rum and no knowing the Naval tradition at the time, which was to let each person or sailor around the table giving a sippers of your rum. I must have had too much because although it was snowing my mates carted me to the guardhouse after consulting with Chief Jones and left me there. I recovered in the morning in something like a cell I suppose at 4am I had something like dog biscuits and a drink of water and I was released at 8am.

We are now resuming this interview on the 2nd June 2003.

Paul you were talking about your time in barracks. You told me that there were a number of nationalities at Chatham with you.

Yes. A great number – Dutch, Balkan, Norwegian, Scotch.

These fellows had joined the Royal Navy and presumably spoke English?

I think most of the foreigners had escaped from their various countries and had been acquired by the Navy. Because the others, the Scotch and Irish, they joined I guess.

Now this also gives rise to one of your group of eleven called Alf Topi, tell us about Alf?

Alf was a Maori from Ruapuke Island which is south of Stewart Island. At that time he was working as telegraphist in the Post Office in Wellington but he was from Ruapuke. He was one of the ones who joined with us of the initial eleven. Alf was a good bloke and I got on very well with him as a matter of fact. He was the only Maori amongst us who joined. After his 5 months training in Chatham as far as I remember he was appointed to either a Minesweeper or a Landing Craft, I just can’t recall altogether. But during our training period I used to go into Chatham Barracks sometimes, from Chatham to London, and he would be with a few of us and socialise with us, but he was a bit of a loner in many ways. I think he felt his race and there were no Maoris at all in the UK that I can recall apart from him and so it was a bit of an ordeal for him I suppose. Despite of that he was a good fellow.

One incident, he was staying at the Victoria League Club when a landmine hit it and he came sliding down the girders with blood coming away from his hands and he lost everything and so we came to his aid, the four of us, and gave him a few bob.

Paul you have shown me a newspaper article that is dated May 1977 which talks about Alf Topi and the fact that he eventually left Wellington and went down to Ruapuke Island where he was the sole resident with his second wife.

That is correct.

Where they had this extensive garden.

His transport was on the back of a horse. I don’t think he had any vehicle on that Island. I just happened to be reading about it that one time and I haven’t heard of him ever since. But he is mentioned in “Port Preservation”… in that book I showed you.

Now this takes us to your first posting on the new Battleship DUKE OF YORK tell us about that?

I did have the opportunity of when I joined that ship to view the hull [indicates] right at the bottom there and we could see the armour plating alongside. I think it was about 12 inches thick this armour plating and I think weighed about 1,000 tons. On either side it was very thick and that was put there to prevent torpedo damage of a Battleship. It had ten 14 inch guns, anti aircraft guns, multiple Pom Poms and it was quite a monster of a ship and about 3 wireless stations onboard. There was one on the bridge and a very good one down amidships somewhere. We had to go on duty everyday in there. We did 4 hours on and then were relieved by someone else and during the day we came on again for a 4 hour period. Constantly with phones on and listening to what they used to call HD Henry Dog and BN Baker Norway routines which were sent out from UK to all ships at sea and our job was to monitor these and take them all down. They were all in code 5 letter code and sometimes 4 figured code and these were decoded by specially trained coders onboard ship who we gave these messages to. So that was my duty for the time I spent onboard.

So you were a TO Telegraphist?

Yes. The TO stands for Trained Operator. We had to pass an exam to get that.

Now amongst your colleagues onboard and there were ship’s company of 1800?

Yes about 1800. We had our own mess and Communication’s mess and of course there was a stokers mess and other people’s messes and there have been easily 40 Communications people. There were signalmen and wireless operators.

Now one of the characters that you became great friends with was a fellow called Taffy Clowes?

Yes Taffy he was a wonderful personality Taffy. He was a good pianist. He was a good imitator of people, he played in New York while the DUKE OF YORK was over there for a short time in Norfolk, Virginia. He was a good cobber. He lived at Fforestfach near Swansea. I still have a photograph of him with a ship’s cat.

So you were aboard when she was launched?

That is correct. When we arrived from Devonport Clem and I were the main radio operators onboard, they haven’t all been posted at that time and so the powers to be were quite reliant on us to receive signals and communications from Clyde Bank down to Rosyth.

You were working up during that time?

Yes that’s right.

You were then at Scapa Flow am I right in saying that?

That’s right.

With the Arctic Convoys coming up?

Yes. In Scapa Flow the Base ship was a mail ship that handled mail and vegetables and food generally speaking, it was called DUNLUCE CASTLE and we sometimes would go across and pick up various things. Whilst I was on the DUKE OF YORK I was invited, I shall say, to go with a group of commandoes for an “exercise landing” it was called and we went up to the Shetland Islands and did the exercise there, which all the crew travelled in about six boats of some kind to the shore. I was the last one off the boat I was on going ashore and the signalman that went before me, he tripped when he got out of the boat and he fell with his gear and sure enough when it came for my turn and I went in I had the bag full of aerials in one hand, a battery in another and the wireless pack on my back. The waves bounced me over and in I went to: I was very cold and very wet while I was ashore for about three hours. I remember the fellow who commanded us, an officer of some military power. He may have been a Norwegian, he said, “If it happens next time I may have to use this,” and he was showing me his gun. He wasn’t a happy chappy.

So that was a prelude to your sailing as a volunteer on this commando trip aboard HMS PRINCE CHARLES?

In actual fact that was not where the Landing Craft went from really. So after this episode, practice, we went across to Norway, the northern part: a town called Vaagesoe near the Island of Molde. In the middle of the night we sailed up a Fiord and unfortunately we got lost and the ship had to return and so we didn’t in actual fact go on a landing because of that, but all that prelude was the lead up to it. During that time it so happened that a group of soldiers it may have been Norwegians, they probably were, they were manhandling a Mills Bomb, which is a hand grenade and as it was being passed about it was observed that the fuse was on and there was only seven seconds to go and one of these guys threw it up and instead of it going out that way up top it hit and bounded back evidently and all six fellows got killed and quite a lot injured from that episode.

Paul wasn’t there was a press person onboard that was the problem wasn’t it?

Yes that was the problem it was going on British News. I am not sure, I have forgotten now, but the paparazzi wanted to take photographs of this event when it happened. It is recorded in the History of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

Now that place you went to was spelt Vaagesoe?

Yes.

Now you came back and rejoined the DOY as you call it the DUKE OF YORK and then you had a short posting to KGV is that right?

Yes I was posted onto the KGV in the absence of the DUKE OF YORK during which time it went to… and I changed ships to a County Class Cruiser CUMBERLAND for the voyage back. So actually I was only a passenger on that because of the absence of the DUKE OF YORK, which I rejoined when I got back to Scapa Flow.

She had been across the Atlantic with Churchill hadn’t she?

Yes the meeting with Churchill and Roosevelt that is correct.

So then your next posting you told me was to Devonport?

Yes I was sent back to Devonport for a while and eventually joined a Destroyer Depot Ship called HECLA in Rosyth. I sailed with Clem my friend from Dunedin on our hopeful return towards New Zealand. It was local supplies for North Africa. We called at Freetown, Sierra Leone, where we spent six days with the rest of the convoy, about 26 vessels all told, including some with many soldiers onboard. We were able to get ashore. Navy Liberty boats took us to the quayside where we were met by several trucks which took us to Lumley Beach about 40 miles away. We had a great little time there and were met by hundreds of little kids.

(End of Tape 1 side A)

(Beginning of Tape 1 side B)

We resumed heading towards Cape Town and in Walvis Bay we struck a mine. There was a great explosion and we thought we had been torpedoed, but we found we had hit a German mine laid a few days earlier and the ship slowly started to sink. We all screamed as we were in complete darkness and so it was very difficult to find a hatchway to get out from down below. 26 I think were killed and about a hundred injured and we were lucky to escape out the ladders, which were broken away from the deck below. Another ship, a Merchant ship I think was, in the convoy was called the HOBART, it was I think sunk. We managed to get in with the help of a Destroyer, which laid oil and towed us into Simon’s Town where we went into dry dock. I was able to go under the ship whilst in dry dock. There were about 13 decks going from the upper deck downwards to the keel and there was a monstrous hole about the size of a small house that appeared to be to me, from memory, that even the upper deck was warped. So then they had to get great cranes to lift all the warheads off onto piers and depth charges out via amidships and we are lucky those didn’t go off and blow the whole ship up. I can still see all of those lifted out by crane. It took five months to repair that ship.

You were towed there by GAMBIA weren’t you?

I can’t remember the date.

That happened on the 15th May 1942?

That is correct.

The injured were taken to Slangkop Hospital, which is up a hill I think. I can remember going up and visiting somebody injured, a mate of mine, and I heard these screams. Somebody had dropped a box of matches and they screamed with fright. It was a terrible sight to see these poor devils up there. Outside the hospital I can recall seeing apes swinging from the trees, that was interesting. Slangkop was about 30 miles from Cape Town by rail.

Now tell us what happened while you spent five months in Simon’s Town?

Yes in Simon’s Town being repaired, I was able to use its radio facilities to let them have a local radio station during which time I resumed my duties as a radio operator: normal duties. But after that during that period another friend of mine Bob Smith from the United Kingdom somewhere he took me with him to visit some friends that he had called Veer. John Veer and his wife and they lived at Clifton On Sea and it was just like just being at home and we called the place Up Homers in recognition of this. They treated us like mother and father these people and even to the extent of letting me drive the Chev at one stage. These Veers took us, on our visits at weekends, down to the local beach at Clifton where we had an enjoyable time in the sea and sand. So we were well treated there and I remember this with great pleasure in actual fact.

Now what were the rest of the ship’s company doing, had they been posted elsewhere whilst these repairs were going on?

They were doing their thing shall we say, I was too busy getting all of my things to know what they were doing apart from their duties aboard ship. You see I was in the Communications on the ship and so that is all we really had any knowledge of.

Paul for some reason HECLA sailed without you didn’t she?

Yes she was repaired eventually and Clem and I were drafted ashore because we were going to New Zealand and the ship was returning to North Africa on the Atlantic Coast of Africa where it was torpedoed and sunk with a loss of three to four hundred crew.

That was November 1942 she was sunk wasn’t it?

Yes.

So you then came back to New Zealand to a Christmas in 1942?

Correct.

Tell us about that trip home?

We came home via Durban on a ship called NESTOR, a Blue Funnel Line ship. We got ashore for six days at Durban, I can’t remember much about what we did, but eventually we sailed for Port Philip, Melbourne and arrived there about three weeks or so later. We spent a fortnight at Melbourne at the Naval Headquarters there and we were taken around by various ones to see bits and pieces of Melbourne. Then after that we came directly home on the RIMUTAKA to Wellington. When we arrived in Wellington they were astonished to see us and when we reported back to the Naval Base Headquarters in Wellington, when we told them who we were, because they had been advised not long before that we had been missing presumed dead after the sinking of the HECLA. The authorities thought we were still aboard.

So this brought you to Navy Office for a posting of about 12 months?

That would be right. I boarded with people in Wellington and how I found those people was I just looked in the telephone book indiscriminately and I put my penny in the slot machine and spoke to a few people and I struck oil. I stayed with a Mr & Mrs Clemens at 6 Merton Terrace, Wellington up Karori way.

Now by this time it is April `43 and you were a Leading Telegraphist. The Commander whilst you were at Navy Office, Wellington was?

Commander N.A.J.W.E. Napier who I guess I met a few times in the course of my duties. It wasn’t his prerogative to come into the Planning Office much and so I couldn’t tell you how he looked.

His distinguishing feature was his five initials?

Yes the five initials I can still see them on the door.

Then to PHILOMEL?

For a while at PHILOMEL I was at the Museum on duty there doing watches and I boarded with City Missioner and then I got drafted to the HMNZS KILLEGRAY, which was a Minesweeper in the New Zealand waters. We travelled up the coastline as far I think as Whangarei from time to time. I was the only sparker onboard that ship.

Do you remember the name of the Commanding Officer of the KILLEGRAY?

No I don’t.

So from KILLEGRAY the Minesweeper, you went to the Headquarters you think for the Navy at Auckland War Memorial Museum and then in September 1944 were transferred to PHILOMEL?

Yes that’s right.

Then from PHILOMEL I was discharged back to the Army in Christchurch, chiefly because I had applied to come out of the service and go back to the Post Office but I was still attached to the Army where I was needed. Then I resumed my Post Office life.

Now just one thing as a postscript that I haven’t mentioned when you were aboard DUKE OF YORK, tell us about the Cine-camera?

While I was in Bristol I bought a Cine-camera 8 millimetre, Keystone. It was made in America and I was able to take movie photographs of the HMNZS DUKE OF YORK. One had to get permission to have a camera aboard and all the films taken were to be submitted for censoring. I was able to take quite a few photos, which I have still got and as a matter of fact they were never submitted to anyone because I just brought them back when I was discharged from the DUKE OF YORK with my other luggage.

So you brought the films home?

Yes I brought the films home and sent them across to Australia where they were processed and returned to me and to this day they are still good. The Christchurch Star took some stills off, quite a few years ago and published them in our paper, of some taken aboard DUKE OF YORK.

End of Interview

INDEX

A
accident 7
air raid 5
armoury (DUKE OF YORK) 6
Army 1, 3, 11
Arctic convoys 7
Atlantic 3

B
birthday 5
Boy Scouts 1
Burnham 1

C
Cape Town 8, 9
Chatham Naval Barracks 4-6
Christchurch 11
Christchurch Star 11
cine-camera 11
commandos 7
CUMBERLAND 8

D
Devonport 8
DUKE OF YORK 6-7, 8, 11
DUNLUCE CASTLE 7
Durban 10

E
exercise 8

F
Freetown (Sierra Leone) 8

G
GAMBIA 9

H
HECLA 8-10
HOBART 8

I
Island of Molde 7

K
KILLEGRAY 11

L
Liverpool 4
London 4

M
Maori 5
Melbourne 10
messing 6
Mills Bomb 7
mine (German) 8
mine sweeping (NZ) 11
Morse Code 1-2
Museum
– Auckland War Memorial 11
– RNZN 11
musical trio (RANGITATA) 3

N
Navy Office 10
NESTOR 10
news (U.K.) 8
North Africa 8, 10
Norway 7
Norwegians 7

P
Panama Canal 3
PHILOMEL 2-3, 11
Planning Office 10
press 8
PRINCE CHARLES 7
Post Office 1, 2, 11
Post Office Corp of Signals 1

R
RANGITATA 3-4
RIMUTAKA 10
Royal Navy 2
rum 5

S
Scapa Flow 7
Shetland Islands 7
Simon’s Town 8
sinking (HECLA) 10
Slangkop Hospital (South Africa) 9
storm 3

T
telegraphist 1, 2, 4, 6, 10, 11
Territorials 1, 3
Topi, Alf 2, 5-6

U
United Kingdom 2, 4-6

V
Vaagesoe 7
Victoria League Club 5

W
Walvis Bay 8
Wellington 10
working up 7

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