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Sinking of HMS Aldenham by Charlie Humphrey

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. During the project the story of the Atherton crew’s heroic efforts at life-saving was narrated by to Bob Smith by Charlie Humphrey from Hartlepool, who, as an eighteen-year-old Ordinary Seaman, witnessed the sinking of HMS Aldenham.

Early in the morning of 14 December 1944, we left a little island called Veli Rat that had a lovely natural harbour entrance, which we more or less used as a base. We had been operating from this little place for several bombardments during that period, and usually accompanied by a couple of MTBs or MLs which used to carry the Royal Artillery FOO parties, and land them ashore for spotting purposes.

In those regions there were fairly high cliffs, and the bombarding ships used to close right in, their firing being radio-controlled by the shore parties. We arrived off the island of Pag early in the forenoon watch, and as I was not requires in the TS, I went out on the port oerlikon gun deck, as usual with a pair of binoculars. Aldenham was anchored off our port side preparing to fire, and our medical officer, who was standing near the entrance to the wheelhouse, was busy doing a sketch of her as she made a lovely sight close up against the cliffs.

By the way, both ships had anchored, and as I looked through my binoculars, I saw an old lady all dressed in black – typical peasant woman – walking along the cliff top leading a cow on a halter. As the first salvos were fired, she calmly stopped, tied up the cow and just wandered quietly away on her own, leaving the animal tethered!

With the bombardment over, both ships weighed anchor and moved out, Aldenham leading the way as she was senior, and once well clear of the area increased speed out into the open sea, the pipe went out, “Hands to defence stations.” My defence station was port oerlikon gunner for one hour and bridge lookout for the next, alternatively for four hours of the watch.

Round the time of the sinking I was standing on the oerlikon gun deck talking to my “opposite number”, a young lad the same age as myself called Geoff Grimersil, who came from Wakefield, and as it was coming in cold and started blowing up a bit, we moved over to the flag deck for more shelter. 

At that moment we heard a bang, which sounded just like someone kicking a big oil drum, and Geoff said to me “What’s that, Charlie?” I said, “I don’t know but it sounded as if Aldenham had a round left in one of the guns and she was clearing it.”

With that I took a couple of steps and peered around the edge of the bridge and got the shock of my life! The Aldenham was completely blown in half, and both parts were sinking very rapidly – the fore part had turned over and was going straight down, while the after part was rising well out of the water – the screws still turning, and it looked as if the depth-charges had rolled back in their racks and broken loose.

While we were watching – completely stunned into silence, the quartermaster came out of the wheelhouse piping “Away seaboats crew, man the port seaboat”, and with us being nearest we were the first to hear the pipe. The two of us dashed down the steps to the side abreast seaboat, commenced slipping the gripes and getting ready to turn the davits out; with that the crew were scrambling into the boat. The gunner’s mate, Chief Petty Officer Wallbridge, had arrived, taken charge and suddenly found there were two crew short, so Geoff and I volunteered but were told to stand fast and assist with the lowering, and in seconds two more men jumped in, making a full crew.

The cox’n of the seaboat was a young action PO whose name I have forgotten, and with the boat lowered and slipped, it quickly pulled away searching for Aldenham survivors. There were a lot of men looking over the port side and not much that could be done there, so I made my way over to the starboard side where men were launching carley floats, tossing scrambling nets over, and even lifebelts attached to heaving lines in an effort to get some of the bobbing swimmers to the side of the ship.

As I got down near the starboard waist, I noticed a big net had been thrown over the side, and swimming towards it was a young sailor, still with a duffel coat on and an oilskin on top of it. How he swam to the Atherstone, I’ll never know, but as I assisted him inboard he asked, “Am I the only one?” I replied, “Not the only one, but I don’t think there are many.”

Seeing that he was all right, I went further aft, and right down on the scrambling net was one of our senior crew members, Bill Briden by name – a three badge AB, hanging on to a fellow, dressed in a kind of green combat jacket, who seemed absolutely all in. Looking up he called out, “Give me a hand down here, Charlie.” I climbed down, but even with our combined efforts we could not pull him up, so Bill said, “Hang on to him while I get a rope and some more assistance.”

I thought the best way to hold this man was to get close to him, slip my left arm through the holes in the net between it and the ship’s side, and hang on to his collar as hard as I could with my right hand. Anyway, while I was holding on to him, waiting for more help, the whaler came back on the starboard side which was the lee side, loaded with survivors just for’ard of where we were.

As it got alongside, the young PO cox’n put his hand on the gun’le of the boat, and with the heavy swell, I watched in horror as a the whaler took his hand right up the side of the ship and back down again. When he got his hand free, the flesh on the back of his hand was rolled back like a big flap, and all his fingers and hand bones were visible. He went off the ship to hospital with all the Aldenham wounded, but later returned as a crewmember apparently none the worse for his accident.

By then, after what seemed like ages but probably only a few minutes, Bill Briden returned with a couple of men and a rope, and as soon as the man was secured he was yanked over the guardrails to safety. It was then I noticed his legs were badly buckled, and probably broken, so it was now quite clear why he had not been able to make any effort while clinging to the safety net.

By the way he was dressed we got the impression he was one of the Aldenham’s officers, and not being able to find a stretcher for him, I dashed off for’ard in the direction of the sickbay to see what I could locate, and on returning found he had been taken down below. I never saw him again! Later on, after things had quietened down a bit, I got talking to our young Sick Berth Attendant. I asked him about the officer with the broken leg and he said, “Oh yes – he’s going to be OK.” Later it was confirmed that he was the Aldenham’s CO – Commander Farrant. The other man in the duffel coat was Able Seaman Bert West. At the time I thought it was possible we could have overlooked somebody, but for miles around the sea seemed completely empty, and it was not until dark that we proceeded to Zara to go alongside the cruiser Colombo and discharge the survivors and wounded.

Thinking back on it, I often wondered if we would have had more success in picking up survivors if we had lowered the motor boat instead of the whaler, but some months previous we had a lot of trouble in starting the engine, and if it had failed again, the boat would have been more of a hindrance than an asset.

Later on, sometime after Christmas and visiting Malta, some of the Aldenham survivors came aboard and down our messes to thank us for our efforts in saving them, and by coincidence, the chap who swam to the ship’s side in his duffel coat and oilskin was one of them. We recognised each other and to me it was rather gratifying to think I had played a small part in rescuing him.

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