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In the Navy by Robert Wise

In 1990, Royal Navy veteran Robert Wise wrote down his memories of life in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. We are grateful to Mr Wise's family for sharing them. This is Robbie's story, in his own words:   


I was born 29th November 1916 at Sussex Street, West Hartlepool. Mother was Alice Louisa (nee Dobson). Father was Norman Henry Wise.

Mother probably worked as a servant in the ‘big houses’, and father was seafaring. He was in the Royal Navy during the First World War, afterwards he worked on the Docks for the North Eastern Railways, and was a Tug Skipper when he retired.

In 1919 the family moved to 37 Pelham Street, West Hartlepool. My education was at Brougham School, leaving at Christmas 1930, aged 14. During my school years I played cricket for the School and played football for the School and Town.

My first job was errand boy at H.M. Scott, high class bakers and confectionery, of 94 York Road. After four months I worked at a Ships Chandler in Victoria Terrace. At the beginning of 1932 I moved to a Garage in Raby Road owned by a Mr Cole; if I had remained in this job I could have served my time to be a motor mechanic. Incidentally, my first job, at Scott’s, earned me 6 shillings (30p) a week plus a bag of cakes, and the hours would be near to 50 over 6 days.

During the summer of 1932 I volunteered to join the Navy, doing my test and medical at Ryehill Gardens, Newcastle. I joined H.M.S. Ganges training barracks at Shotley, near Ipswich, as a 2nd class boy on 15th September 1932. I think my pay was 3 shillings (15p) per week, but we only received 6 pence (2.5p) pocket money each week, the remainder banked for us.

On ‘passing out’ in November 1933 I was drafted to H.M.S. Cornwall at Portsmouth. She was a 10,000 ton cruiser. Captain was a V.C. of the First War, Bell Davies. Cornwall sailed on 12th January 1934 for a 2 ½ year commission on the China Station.

The ship returned in July 1936. I then joined H.M.S. Excellent gunnery school in Portsmouth. Late in 1937 I commissioned H.M.S. Aurora in Portsmouth. The ship was new and built in the Portsmouth Dockyard, tonnage about 6,000 tons. Aurora carried the Flag of Home Fleet Destroyers and I was a member of the Admiral’s staff. On being promoted to Leading Seaman I reverted to a member of Aurora’s crew.

When war was declared on 3rd September 1939 our ship was patrolling somewhere between the Shetland Islands and Norway. We were in Scapa Flow on 14th October 1939 when an enemy submarine penetrated the harbour defences and sank H.M.S. Royal Oak. All ships in port scattered to sea and after a patrol we returned to Loch Ewe, a base in North West Scotland. We had arrived on Sunday 22nd October. The next day I left the ship and travelled by coach and train to H.M.S. Victory barracks at Portsmouth. We arrived p.m. Tuesday. On Wednesday morning I applied for, and was granted, a Long Weekend. I sent a telegram to Olive to arrange the wedding for Saturday 28th October. I got to Gateshead late Friday evening. The wedding took place at St Chad’s, Rawling Road, Gateshead. After the reception in a church hall we returned to West Hartlepool and spent the night at Vic and Ruby’s in Borrowdale Street. We returned to Gateshead Sunday evening and I left by train for Portsmouth in the early hours of Monday morning.

I was only a few days in Victory Barracks when I was sent to H.M.S. Excellent for an A.A. gunnery course. In December (after the Battle of the River Plate) a crew was quickly gathered together to commission H.M.S Hawkins, a cruiser of the First World War, and I was picked.

Hawkins sailed 9th January 1940 and we eventually found ourselves patrolling off the South American coast. We visited Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and the Falkland Islands. We moved in September to Simonstown, the Naval Dockyard near Capetown.  During this time we spent 235 days at sea and 21 days in harbour. I left the Hawkins and took passage home in the liner S.S. Strathnaver. The ship arrived in Liverpool during October and I then went to Portsmouth barracks.

Late November I moved to Hayling Island and joined the Combined Operations Organisation. Our base was an ex-holiday camp named Northney, the first such camp in Britain. Early December, with a landing craft crew, I went to Vospers boatyard at Southampton and collected two L.C.A.s (Landing Craft Assault). They were placed on Pickford’s road wagons and it took us three or four days to reach Greenock at the mouth of the Clyde. The craft were placed in the water and we awaited instructions. In the meantime we were billeted in the local Community Centre.

Early January 1941 we joined H.M.S Glenroy, previously a fast Merchant ship on the Far East run. It had been converted to an assault ship and on this occasion was loaded with Command Troops. We sailed, and ultimately arrived at Alexandria in Egypt (via Capetown). The troops we took disembarked and I believe they did valuable work in the Western Desert and Agean Sea.

Around Easter we embarked troops and sailed to the island of Cos (Agean Sea). Early one morning we commenced disembarkation but before it was complete we re-embarked and returned to Alexandria. Evidently the Germans were getting the upper hand in that sphere of the war. A few days later we loaded with more troops and sailed for Crete, with the intention of landing the soldiers on the beaches. An hour or so before arrival the situation on the island became critical so authority at a high level decided it was a forlorn hope to hold it, so we had to turn round and return to Alexandria.

I think it was September I left Glenroy and joined the Special Ops base camp at Kabrit (Suez Canal, point joining Big Bitter Lake with Little Bitter Lake). This camp was Stag K, but later changed name to H.M.S. Saunders. At this camp we trained both Navy and Army personnel for assault landings on open beaches. Adjoining our base was the training camp for the Long Range Desert Group, famous for their exploits in the Western Desert. They became the nucleus of the famous Special Air Service.

I believe it was January 1942 I embarked on a Fleet Oil Tanker (Derwentdale?) with L.C.M.s (Landing Craft Motors) on the hatches. We sailed for Benghazi and operated the port by unloading ships at anchorage. We had been there about 10 days when the Germans broke the Front Line and we had to evacuate. We loaded our own craft with stores and then steamed to Tobruk. Their Naval base party was evacuated back to Saunders and we, the Benghazi party, took over their duties. Tobruk became isolated and cut off, so all stores were convoyed and our job was to unload the ships as quickly as possible before the German Stuka aircraft destroyed them or chased them out to sea.

It was the practice for us Naval personnel to do three months service up the Desert and then get relieved. Around May relief arrived at Tobruk for everyone except me. It transpired the Petty Officer relieving me had got drunk in Alexandria while waiting passage. He had been held back waiting punishment and then, instead of coming to Tobruk, they sent him back to Saunders. It took about three weeks to realise that something was amiss and then my Commanding Officer signalled Saunders and asked about my relief. Subsequently a relief did arrive one evening (he took passage on a Naval Frigate escorting a convoy). My C.O. left it to me how, and when, I returned to Saunders. I decided to sail back on that same Frigate at 23:00 that same evening. That night the Germans broke through the Tobruk perimeter and by noon the Petty Officer who took my place was a prisoner of war. This was mid-June 1942.

For the next 12 months it was exercises and more exercises, taking troops in landing craft and assaulting beaches on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. Around May 1943 I was with a platoon of Royal Marines and we toured army camps in Palestine demonstrating how to mann a L.C.A. from a ship , and how to disperse once the craft had beached. This tour was about three or four weeks. Back in Saunders I got a quick draft to join a ship (taking part in the Sicily landings).  I had been sent to Alexandria for this ship, but it was at Port Said, so I missed out on that invasion. A few weeks later I was drafted home through the Mediterranean onboard a troopship.

I disembarked at Liverpool and arrived at a camp in Oulton Broads, near Lowestoft, sometime late October. Between Christmas and New Year a train took us to Arrochar and then bus to Inverary. I think I was there about four or five weeks and then down to Hayling Island.  

We lived in houses and I was in charge of about 70 men and we had about twelve London river barges. These barges had been adapted to carry two Chrysler 8 engines for propulsion and the cargo carrying barges had a ramp on the stern. The idea was the barge be loaded with stores and run up the beach at high tide. When the tide receded the barge would be ‘high and dry’. Army lorries would then unload via the ramp. The next high tide the barge would float; it would then go alongside a ship and load with more stores and get on the beach with the next tide. One of the barges was fitted out as a complete bakery, another was a fresh water carrier. One was fitted out as a complete workshop. Another was a petrol carrier.

On D Day our target was Sword beach and we left the Nab Tower (spithead) at midnight the commencement of D Day. We all survived the Channel crossing and beached around 22:00 hours. For almost 12 days we fulfilled our duties, then a gale blew up and wrecked most of our craft. We could not function so it was decided to return all personnel to Hayling Island. We all got seven days leave. Having no craft we were just hanging around. Late 1944 and early 1945, large ships were being loaded with war material for the Far East war, and on the hatches they were placing landing craft. From our camp I was sending men to these ships to crew the landing craft.

Since November 1940 I had been attached to Combined Operations and late summer of 1945 I was returned to General Service and joined the Victory Barracks in Portsmouth. I was elected Vice President of the Petty Officers’ Mess and hoped to stay until demob (November 1946). Things did not turn out like that. Early December I was drafted to base party at Wilhemshaven. About July 1946 I was transferred to Hamburg. I came back to Portsmouth barracks late November and commenced leave straight away, finishing my naval engagement on 11th February 1947.



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