My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
When Jim’s letters fail to arrive at the end of April 1941, Norah’s disappointment soon spirals into high anxiety. She hears on the wireless that his ship, HMS Elgin, has been under fire from enemy aircraft. She seems not to know at this point in time that there were no casualties among the crew. All she has at her disposal is the information that some of his shipmates have brought down a Heinkel and her imagination of the horrors involved.
Norah will have heard on the news about ships around Britain that had been bombed, damaged, blown up or sunk. In that week in April alone, one ship in a convoy near Cromer went down, as did an anti-aircraft vessel off the Tyne. HMS Raleigh took a direct hit at Portsmouth, leaving 42 dead and 13 injured. A minesweeper off Millford Haven was ‘mined and sunk with all hands lost’.
‘All hands lost’: this statement pulls me up against my own shortcomings in the field of military history. I have to confess to finding this so very – puzzlingly – difficult. Is it normal for one trained in historical research to find a branch of the discipline so utterly impenetrable? It might have been easier if sometime early on in the process I had stumbled across some first-hand accounts (1). But almost everything I have read seems to be bound up with information about battles and skirmishes that my brain refuses to process. It also requires an understanding of the organisation of the Navy, the different jobs and their respective status, that I don’t seem able to retain. As a result, I have found very little that gives me any insight into what it was like for Jim and his mates aboard the Elgin on that April night.
On the kind advice of a reader of an earlier post on this blog, I turned in the first instance to fiction. JPW Mallalieu’s Very Ordinary Seaman was published in 1944 and is based on the author’s (ongoing) experience in the Royal Navy. Mallalieu’s background was upper-crust: he was educated at public schools and at Oxford, where he was President of Oxford Union in 1930, and in later life he received a knighthood. His novel, however, is written from the perspective of the ordinary sailor and quite clearly came from the same empathic place as the political commitment which led him to become Labour MP for Huddersfield from his demobilisation in 1945 until 1979 (2).
Very Ordinary Seaman tracks a very believable crew from conscription and training in the south west of England, through their posting to a ship, their bonding as shipmates and finally, to action in the North Sea as part of a convoy bound for Russia. It is well-reviewed, including on Amazon by former sailors in the Royal Navy, one of whom states it brought it all back for him (3). Its particular strength is the dialogue between the working-class ratings (a new word for me) which is sharp, humorous, foul-mouthed and moving. The warmth among the men contrast with the bitter coldness, especially of the nightwatch; their colourful banter and intimacy set against the interminable vast greyness of the sea.
Mallalieu’s description of the appearance of German planes in the northern skies takes me back to Jim.
Then the Skipper’s voice sounded. He was talking from the bridge through the loud-hailer. He said: “Hullo, Marsdens. Signal received. A formation of enemy planes is approching the convoy. It’s about fifty miles away at the moment on the starboard beam. Keep your eyes open.”
Fifty miles away! How fast did bombers go? Wasn’t it about 300 m.p.h? At that rate they would not be over the convoy for another ten minutes or so. Williams dived for the cork lifebelt, unpinned his mouthpiece, pulled off his helmet, balaclava, and earphones, and handed the phones to Barber. ‘Here, George. Put these on a moment while I fix this lifebelt.’
‘What didst Ah tell thee, Bob? Jerry’s oop to form.’ George took the earphones.
Williams found that his nervousness had gone. He fixed his cork lifebelt, took back the phones from George, and was soon ready for whatever might happen. ‘
“Thank God we get some decent warning. I’d be in one hell of a mess if it was “action stations” one minute and “action” the next.”
Fifty miles away! Perhaps they’re not coming for us after all. Then he grinned. The convoy was in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the only possible target within 300 miles. It wasn’t like being in a land blitz in London, hearing the sirens go and saying, “Well, they may only be going for the Thames Estuary. Perhaps they’ll leave Central London alone for a change.” This formation of planes could only be making for the convoy.’ (4)
The waiting: 50 miles away, then 25, soon 10. The heart skipping a beat on first sight of the dots in the blue sky. Fear giving way to resignation as the men helplessly watch the bombs raining down, just missing them, dropping into the sea or onto other ships in the convoy, ships full of boys and men just like them, which go up – and then down – in seconds.
Although Jim wouldn’t be up there of course, not on deck, but in the ship’s bowels, stoking up the engines. Was it easier to be below deck, to not see precisely what was going on?
I didn’t know that a ‘tin fish’ could slice through the side of a ship, blast out an engine room, carrying bits of bodies in its wake, and the ship itself could stay afloat, the men still on the deck, praying and pointing their guns at the swooping enemy in the sky.
And I had never really imagined what happened if the ship didn’t stay up, if it set ablaze and then started to lurch and dip down, how there was nowhere to escape to, nowhere to take cover, just burning oil in the freezing grey sea.
But the Elgin on that April night not only survived but brought down one of the attacking planes. Another reader guided me to the men who launched the shell that slid through that single Heinkel and plummeted its crew into the ocean. Petty Officer Archie Snook and Able Seaman Robert White were both decorated after the War (5).
The same reader also sent me this photograph of another of Jim’s shipmates in 1941-2. Yes seriously, they had a dog on board. He’s an ugly little brute, a British bull dog, I guess. It isn’t hard to imagine what he would bring to such a community. He received the odd kicking, no doubt, when he got under the feet of a stressed sailor, but his loyalty, affection and love for the scraps of food fed to him some of the pleasures that reminded them of home.
Norah seems to know none of this and yet she knows all of it. She’s worried, of course:
29th April 1941: Still no letter. ON 6 & 9 NEWS THAT H.M.S ELGIN HAD BROUGHT DOWN A HEINKEL III. OH JIM! Went about in a trance. Heard cuckoo.
30th: Returned to school. Still no news so had a good old weep. Mock Oxford on May 8th & Practical Domestic Science on May 26th.
1st May: Had Hygiene instead of Music Appreciation. Oh, Jim where have you got to?
2nd May: Rolled tennis court. 48,000 British troops evacuated from Greece. Wonder whether Jim is there. If he doesn’t write soon I’ll go mad. Had clothes inspection.
3rd May: Still no news. Bought blue shoes from Wykes. Churchill made speech.
Norah’s juxtaposition of unrelated daily events is at its comical best in these entries. The high drama of the war at sea alongside the first cuckoo of Spring. Her purchase of some new blue shoes followed by Churchill’s speech.
And then there’s the tears, the trance, the capitalisation and the exclamation marks. While I have no doubt Norah is genuinely worried for Jim, these all suggest that she is performing romance, trying out a new set of emotions for size.
As she prepares for and then sits her mock exams, Norah follows the news carefully, noting the numbers of ‘Jerries’ shot down in the night. She hazards a guess that Jim is in Greece (and not, as was actually the case, sitting somewhere off Harwich):
4th: Ma & Pa went to Long Eaton. 16 Jerries brought down. Birdy’s 21st birthday.
5th: Country Dancing. Still no letter. Think he must be evacuating troops from Greece.
8th: English exam 2 hrs. Not bad. Biology 1 ¼ hrs. Simply lousy. Arithmetic all right. 24 Jerries brought down during night.
9th: At last have received short but welcome letter from Jim. Nottingham blitzed last night. 2 Geography papers. Not very good. Quite decent French paper.
When he finally writes Jim, bound by confidentiality and restricted by the censor, can tell her very little.
At last I am able to thank you for your letter and curl which is highly treasured. We have had a busy and exciting time so I have been unable to write to my good-looking friend. It is impossible to wrap up one of your dimple’s so what else can I cadge off you. I hope the raid’s are not in your district. How is your sister’s baby, are you a good nurse-maid. What are Arsenal’s chances in the cup, I bet you a kiss. Have you found a photo for me, of course I prefer you in person, but there is a war on. I blame you that my letters are short because you never ask any questions (shy).
Cheerio for now,
Tons of love,
Please write soon.
PS Nelson is hoping you will forward the address in my next letter.
This is a ‘short but welcome letter’. His cheek and fun make me laugh. Norah too:
10th May: Replied to Jim. Arsenal & Preston drew in Cup Final (1-1). So my fate is not sealed yet!!!
(1) Glyn Prysor’s Citizen Sailors (Viking, 2011) has just dropped through my letterbox. More soon.
(2) Mallalieu had previously published Rats! with the Left Book Club in 1941. He went on to write ‘Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic, 1939-1944’, an episode of the series The World at War‘ (1974). Thanks to George Harris (@Historylecturer on Twitter) for the tip.
(3) I Eastman, http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/0583128084/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1
(4) JPW Mallalieu, Very Ordinary Seaman (London,  1983), pp. 179-180.
(5) Thanks to John Tanner for details about the Elgin and crew, men and dog.
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