Life in the Royal Navy 1941-1946
By A/S James Cecil Levett, R.N.
I left home as a young lad of seventeen to travel from Bognor Regis to Portsmouth Naval Recruiting Office to join the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman (Local Defence Duties), from there I was taken across the harbour to New Barracks, Gosport. What a shock to a young lad who had never been away from home! I was kitted out with my uniform and given various inoculations and from there taken to Coronation Camp, Hayling Island to carry out basic training which consisted mainly of 'square bashing'. After a fortnight I was drafted to H.M.S. Mercury, East Meon, Near Petersfield, where I carried out guard duties, with not much time off. In early 1942 I was drafted to H.M.S. Raven, Eastleigh, which is now Southampton Airport, where I carried out Air Traffic Assistant duties in the watch tower.
In July 1942 I transferred to General Duties and drafted to H.M.S. Collingwood, Fareham, for seaman training where I spent six weeks learning about knots and all other aspects of an Ordinary Seaman's life, including some more 'square bashing'. On completion of that I was drafted to H.M.S. Valkyrie, Douglas, Isle of Man, which meant travelling from Fleetwood to Douglas by the Isle of Man ferry across the Irish Sea, this being the first time I had come into contact with a ship since joining the Royal Navy. What a difference when we got to Douglas, no barrack blocks or "Nissen" huts but our accommodation was the hotels along the sea front at Douglas. Every morning we were marched to Douglas Head for training as R.D.F. Operators, which was a secret operation in those days, which lasted for six weeks. From there we embarked on H.M.S. Pollux (an ex Russian icebreaker) for our sea training for a week, and disembarked at Greenock and travelled down to H.M.S. Victory (Royal Navy Barracks, Portsmouth). Whilst there I received a draft chit to H.M.S. Newfoundland which meant fourteen days leave over Christmas, which was to be the only Christmas I spent at home until 1946.
To join H.M.S. Newfoundland we left Portsmouth station on 31st December 1942 travelling overnight to Newcastle, arriving there early on New Years Day, then on to Wallsend to catch the first sight of the ship that was to be my home for the next three years. We commissioned her there and remained in the River Tyne for fourteen days storing and ammunitioning the ship before sailing to Rosyth in the Firth of Forth where we spent a week. From there we proceeded to Scapa Flow arriving on the 20th January 1943 where we did our working up, where I was cured of sea sickness after we had a particularly rough trip out into the Atlantic Ocean for one particular operation. On leaving Scapa Flow on the 10th March 1943 in a force eight gale to go round the top of Scotland where we rolled over to seventeen degrees and we only had two more degrees to go before we would have completely rolled over.
On arrival in Devonport on 12th March 1943 we were immediately taken over by a swarm of "Dockyard Mateys" to take the top of 'A' turret to replace the barrel of one of the 6" guns. Whilst there our two Walrus aircraft were taken away to be replaced by six Oerlikon guns on the catapult deck. Once this work had been carried out we operated in the Western Approaches, covering convoys from the 17th March 1943 during which time we were attacked by a German FW 200 aircraft and on the way back to Plymouth we had to pass close to the French coast but the R.A.F. provided an escort of Beaufighters whilst we were in the danger zone and when we arrived in Plymouth Sound we had enough fuel for one hours steaming. We finally left Plymouth on 1st April 1943 covering another convoy on our way to Gibraltar where we were most surprised to find no blackout and it was the first lighted street lamps we had seen since 1939.
We were now part of the Mediterranean Fleet, and from there we went to Oran (Mers el Kebir) in French North Africa for Anti-Aircraft practice as our Captain had not been very pleased with our performance whilst in the Atlantic. It was my first time on foreign soil in my life as we had a run ashore in Oran and what an eye opener that was - shoe polishing boys and beggars on the street and all the flies everywhere. From there we went along the North African coast to Algiers, which again was an eye opener, as it was a most modern city but again, as in Oran the streets were full of boot boys and beggars. It also had a Casbah which housed the Arab population, this was out of bounds to all Allied Forces. The first night we were there the German Air Force decided to carry out an air raid and when we opened fire with all our guns 6", 4", Pom-Poms, Oerlikons, we smashed all the windows in the buildings on the sea front so the following day we were moved out to the mole of the outer harbour, where we could fire without causing unnecessary damage. We left Algiers on the 4th May 1943 to go to Bone, a bit further along the coast, where we laid alongside and whilst there had air raids every night, during one of which a Liberty ship just in front of us was hit and caught fire and our fire crews helped to put the fire out. Another job we had whilst there was to paint the top of our destroyers with red lead to enable the Americans to recognise them as friends. After a fortnight we left there to return to Algiers where the ships company was inspected by Admiral Cunningham, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, we only stayed three days in Algiers to store ship before we were on our way to Malta.
On our arrival in Malta it was most upsetting to see the children come aboard to collect the food that we had thrown away so that they could have a meal for their families, also when you went ashore to see the colossal damage caused by the bombing and the way the Maltese people were living in tunnels dug into the rock. Whilst we were there we had quite a few air raids but nowhere as hectic as earlier in the siege. All around Grand Harbour you could see ships masts sticking out of the water where they had been sunk.
On the 4th June 1943 we left to carry out bombardment on Pantelleria and back to Malta on the 5th June to more air raids. We left again on 6th June for more operations against Pantellaria and during this operation it was not a very pleasant sight to see shells on the radar screen coming the other way from the shore batteries. Then back to Malta where we remained until 11th June 1943 when we sailed for more operations against Pantellaria, culminating in the invasion of the island and its capture, from there to another island called Lampedusa which surrendered without a fight and the following day to Linosa which also surrendered and back to Malta for my birthday (19th) but not much celebration.
We left Malta on the 16th June 1943 to go to Port Suez, Southern end of the Canal, whilst on passage we had an escort of R.A.F. Hurricanes, one of which crashed into the sea, but we rescued the pilot and dropped him off at Port Said. We arrived at Port Suez on the 18th June 1943 where we carried out gunnery practice (bombardment), using Radar for ranging which was successful until 21st June. Before leaving we embarked 200 Army officers and men which made things a trifle crowded, to take with us to Malta. We arrived back in Malta on June 23rd and disembarked our passengers then left Grand Harbour as it was rather crowded, to go to Marsaxlokk, whilst there General Montgomery came aboard on 5th July and gave a speech to the ships company about future events.
We set sail from Malta on 8th July 1943 to go west to meet up with an invasion force that had come all the way from the United Kingdom and felt very sorry for them as the sea was very rough at this time, for the invasion of Sicily which took place on 9th July during which we carried out bombardments in support of the army until 16th July when it was back to Malta for some ammunition but it was only a brief stop of a few hours, then back to Sicily where we entered Augusta Harbour where we had some more air raids and every day left harbour to carry out bombardments on German and Italian targets for the eighth army.
Whilst in Augusta we had quite a lot of air raids and our four inch gun barrels paint had all blistered because of the amount of firing they had done. On 23rd July 1943 we left Augusta to return to Malta but at half past one in the afternoon we were hit by a torpedo from an Italian Submarine which caused us to lose our rudder and we also lost one man who was blown off the stern and never seen again, and to make our way back to Malta steering by engines and arrived in Grand Harbour at a quarter to five. Next day we were moved into dry dock and patched up and tons of concrete poured into the stern so that the propellers would stay in the water.
We sailed from Malta on 8th August 1943 and as were leaving H.M.H.S. Aba was coming into harbour, which was the hospital ship my brother was serving on, who I had not seen since 1940. We arrived in Gibraltar on 10th August and many of the lads bought bananas and oranges to take home, but it was not to be, in our mess we had an American seaman who had been in hospital in Gibraltar to take back to the U.S.A. We left Gibraltar and headed West and not North to join an American convoy to the United States.
During the voyage on the 13th August we had to rig a sail from the bridge to the forecastle to assist our steering. We departed from the convoy on the 20th August to make our independent way to Boston, we arrived on 21st August 1943. I was one of the lucky ones to remain with the ship all the time we were there, again it was wonderful to see all the lights and advertising signs all lit up. One thing that impressed us was the hospitality shown to us whilst we were there. Nearly every weekend I would travel to Pawtucket, Rhode Island to stay with the Massey family and normally on a Saturday night would be taken to the British Club of Rhode Island. They had no rationing and when we knew we were getting near the end of the repairs I started stocking up on tinned food etc., to take home. We finally left Boston on 19th April 1944 for Norfolk, Virginia for gunnery practice before we set sail across the Atlantic and home, we departed Norfolk on 24th April for St John's, Newfoundland, to show the people of Newfoundland the ship that was named after their island, and they took advantage of it as we had thousands of visitors and also they presented us with a silk battle ensign. After leaving St John's on 3rd May we arrived in Greenock on 6th May and I shall always remember as we sailed up the Clyde the radio was playing "Sailing up the Clyde". The Captain went to see the Naval Officer in charge and when he came back aboard he told us we would de-ammunition ship and go into dockyard hands again and we would have twenty one days leave.
So on the Monday I travelled all the way from Greenock to Bognor Regis with a kitbag stuffed with goodies of all descriptions most of which had not been seen in England since 1939. After this leave I returned to Greenock while the refit was still being carried out which included a new radar for the six inch guns, which was my 'baby'. All the transmitting station crew were sent to H.M.S. Excellent at Whale Island, Portsmouth for a week's course on the new radar. Also during this time I had another fourteen days leave. We remained in the Clyde until 1st December 1944, then back to Scapa Flow for a minor working up until the 19th December 1944, when we left for Greenock arriving on 20th December and left again on 21st for Gibraltar arriving on the 23rd December 1944 where we spent our Christmas.
We set sail from Gibraltar on 26th December 1944 and had a very rough passage through the Mediterranean arriving at Alexandria on 30th December 1944 where we continued our working up until 2nd February 1945 when there was an explosion in the port (left) torpedo tubes with one Corporal Royal Marine being killed as he was asleep in his hammock above them. During this time I went to a rest camp on the Bitter Lakes at Ismalia for a week. We finally left Alexandria on 25th March 1945 after all the repairs were done, sailing to Port Said to go down the Suez Canal in company with H.M.S. Implacable. All tommies on the banks shouting at us, You're going the wrong way"!
We arrived in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on 6th April 1945 leaving there on 8th April to go further East, we crossed the Equator and had the "Crossing the Line" ceremony with King Neptune on 9th April. After that we called at the Coco Islands which gave the impression of a tropical island as seen on the cinema screen.
What a surprise awaited us when we arrived at Freemantle, Western Australia on 15th April, lined up on the jetty as we docked were lorry loads of fresh fruit by courtesy of the local women's associations. Unfortunately, we only stayed one night there before the next day we left to go to Sydney arriving on 20th April 1945 to be greeted by a terrific downpour of rain (so much for sunny Australia). We remained in Sydney enjoying the bright lights and Aussie hospitality. Whilst I was there I was travelling on the ferry to Manley (a suburb of Sydney) I got into conversation with a Mr Jenner who invited me home and so all the time in Sydney, when ashore, I made my way to Manley, even having meals on the beach. The day came when we had to go North to commence our fight against the Japanese and we left on 4th May 1945 for Manus in the Admiralty Islands just north of New Guinea arriving there on 8th May. Whilst we were relaxing on the upper deck the Captain broadcast over the tannoy that the war in Europe was over but we would be sailing against the Japanese tomorrow, which we did, to Wewak in Dutch New Guinea, on the 10th May we carried out a bombardment for the Australian Army landing there.
After just the one days operation we set sail for Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea arriving on 12th May which was what a Pacific Island was like, with coconut palms, white sand and blue sea, except for all the derelict landing craft and unexploded bombs and shells left on the beach when the Americans landed there. We were able to spend five days there before we left to go back to Manus arriving on 17th May to try and find some six inch ammunition, with no luck, so we left there on the 19th May for Auckland, New Zealand, arriving there on the 24th May and again into dry dock to have our bow plates repaired as we had sprung a leak and got our six inch ammunition. Whilst there we had a trip to Rotorua which is an area of hot springs and in the town all you could smell was sulphur. This trip was paid for by the New Zealand government.
Our repairs were completed by 6th June so we left to go back to Manus arriving there on 10th June 1945 and what a surprise when we got there to find two aircraft carriers, three other cruisers and a number of destroyers in harbour, so we guessed something was in the wind. We all left Manus on 12th June to carry out operations against the Japanese base on Truk, Mariana Islands during which we carried out a bombardment whilst the aircraft bombed the base on 14th June (celebrating my 21st birthday), and arriving back in Manus on 19th June.
On 25th June we left Manus to go south to meet the rest of the British Pacific Fleet heading north out of Sydney which we did on 30th June, then turned north to Manus arriving there on 4th July. On the 6th July all the ships left to head north to join up with the American Third Fleet and I had never seen so many ships, there were over a hundred of all types, from aircraft carriers to destroyers. We spent most of this time looking after the aircraft carriers and occasionally going to Repel Aircraft Stations because of Japanese air attacks but most of these were directed against the Americans. The first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 8th August 1945. The following day we carried out a bombardment on the town of Kamaishi in Northern Honshu during which we fired three hundred and twenty nine six inch shells and destroyed the target, whilst we were carrying out this operation the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. During this time we were nearer to London, 'as the crow flies', than we were to our base in Sydney.
On the 15th August 1945 the Captain told us the war was over but as Mr Atlee's announcement was being broadcast over the B.B.C. radio we went into Action Stations. During the next two hours, five Japanese aircraft were shot down. A signal was received from the American Admiral Halsey to the British Pacific Fleet to 'Splice the Mainbrace', we also received from the Admiralty in London a signal to 'Splice the Mainbrace', so we had two tots of rum to celebrate VJ day.
We continued operating off Japan until 27th August when we dropped anchor in Sagami Wan, the first time for fifty two days, all around the bay were white flags showing the military installations and this we later discovered was to be the place for the initial invasion of Japan, We were also piped 'Hands to Bathe' little realising how cold the water was so did not stay in long, but it was nice to feel clean as we had been short of fresh water for quite some time.
The 31st August saw us leaving Sagami Wan after having to raise the anchor by hand as the electric capstan had broken down, arriving in Tokyo Bay at five to one. On 2nd September the Surrender was signed on U.S.S. Missouri, and during the surrender ceremony the sky over Tokyo Bay was filled with aircraft from the carriers and the American Air Force.
Then came the most moving moments of our whole time in Tokyo Bay, as on 3rd September H.M.S. Speaker left with four hundred and seventy three ex-prisoners of war for home cheered by every British ship and our Royal Marine Band playing all the tunes to remind them of home. On 14th September I went ashore to Yokohama which was the first time on land since Auckland in June and what a sight greeted us as we went through the dock gates, as far as the eye could see the whole town had been completely flattened by bombing. We cheered some more ex-prisoners of war on their way on the 14th in H.M.S.Wakeful and again on the 15th in H.M.S. Ruler and on the 16th H.M.H.S. Tjitjaleuka left. During this time we paid visits to the hospital ships to talk to the prisoners of war released from the prison camps. I also paid a visit to Tokyo during this time again total devastation except around the Emperor's Palace which was untouched, and the Emperor still had his six foot Japanese guards outside the Palace.
Finally the day came to leave Japan on 25th September to go back to Manus arriving 1st October, we left there the following day to go to Sydney arriving there on 7th October flying a Japanese ensign below our battle ensign which had been given to the ship by the people of Newfoundland and we had run ashore in a civilised country for the first time since June, and I had over one hundred pounds in my pocket, which in 1945 was an awful lot of money. We remained in Sydney until the beginning of November when we left to carry out a show the flag cruise around the South Island of New Zealand, our first port of call was Milford Sound which was very impressive sailing up the fjords with the mountains towering above us as we sailed down the sound. After leaving Milford Sound we went to the most Southerly port called Bluff and we went ashore there and were given free rail travel into Invercargill which was the nearest big town and the Kiwis were again most hospitable to us and this was to show throughout the visit where ever we went. We spent two days there and 1st November 1945 left Bluff for Port Chalmers which was the port where Captain Scott left for his last trip to the South Pole (Antarctic). 2nd November left Port Chalmers for Dunedin and stayed for two days. The people were most generous there and also Dunedin which is known as Edinburgh of the South. 5th November 1945 left Dunedin for three days in Lyttleton which is the port for Christchurch, whilst there we carried out parades through the city and we had a dance laid on in the Town Hall with our Royal Marine Band providing the music. In each of these places we spent two days. We left Lyttleton to proceed to Wellington, arriving there at 0945 hours on 10th November 1945, but we only spent half a day there before we set sail for Sydney at 0400 hours and arrived back in Sydney on th 13th November. After arrival in Sydney I was granted leave over Christmas and I travelled up to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains which was a beautiful place with all the scenery and different kinds of birds.
On arrival back on board in Sydney I was told I had a draft for H.M.S. Golden Hind which was a shore base just outside Sydney, so I finally left H.M.S.Newfoundland after three years almost to the day on board. I was given a draft to H.M.S. Indefatigable for passage home to England. We left Sydney early January 1946 with two other aircraft carriers and paid a visit to Melbourne where we had thousands of visitors every day we were there. I much preferred Melbourne to Sydney as the people were much more friendly and not so brash as the people in Sydney. From Melbourne our next port of call was Fremantle and again many visitors came aboard whilst we were there, again not able to get ashore there so during the twice calling there I had never been able to see Fremantle or Perth as I was watch aboard both times. We left Fremantle to make our way across the Indian Ocean and our aircraft did reconnaissance flights over some uninhabited islands in case there were any of our people who had escaped from Singapore and Malaya who had finished up there and had never been discovered. Our speed across the Indian Ocean was very slow as we had orders from the Admiralty in London to only go at ten knots to save fuel.
Finally arriving at Capetown, which was a fine city but spoilt by the way coloured people were treated even in those days before apartheid. Whilst there we embarked fifty Grumman Wildcat Fighter Aircraft for passage back to the Britain. After we left Capetown we proceeded up the West African coast and on the Sunday morning we were all given chipping hammers to knock holes in the Wildcats and they were all trundled off the bow whilst we went astern and they all finished up in the sea and most probably are there to this day.
On the way North we called at Ascension Island which looked exactly what it is, a volcanic island. We also called in at St Helena to collect their mail and then on to Gibraltar for a brief stop, then to the last leg home. It was now March and it had taken us two months from leaving Sydney to finally arrive at Portsmouth, where all the families of those on board were there to greet us and I then travelled home to Bognor Regis. As we pulled into Fratton Station a soldier of the R.A.M.C. got into the carriage and lo and behold it was my brother, Bert, who I had not seen for five years.
The following Monday I left H.M.S. Indefatigable to travel to H.M.S. Drake at St Budeaux, Plymouth where seven days later I had completed all my documentation and issued with 'civvies' including a trilby hat which I passed on to my dad, and travelled home to Bognor Regis finally being demobilised from the Royal Navy on the 6th June 1946 vowing that I would not join even a Christmas club after that. How wrong I was to be!
This was produced by my father, James Cecil Levett, in 1996 after my request for him to put into words his experience of life in the Navy during the Second World War.
Hilary J. Ferguson
Page published Oct. 29, 2017