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My first ship

by Frank Shaw C/JX 152405
I joined the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class on the 15th March 1937, aged 15 years and 6 months. Going to HMS Ganges at Shotley on the same day. I was in a party of other Boys from the T.S. Arethusa and we left 85 Whitehall which was the main recruiting office for the Royal Navy in London.

We travelled from Fenchurch Street station to Harwich in the train and crossed the river to Shotley in a naval pinnace. We were taken as a party, up the steps of Faith, Hope and Charity; to the Quarter-Deck where were inspected by the OOW (Officer of the Watch) who happened to be a Warrant Officer. He gave a little speech and said we would most likely hate the RN in the morning.

The party was taken to the Bath House, given some naval clothing and marched to the Nozzer part of the establishment. We spent a month getting used to RN routine and then we were split up into two groups; comprising Seaman and Boy Signalmen or, Telegraphist. The groups then split up again into divisions, messes and classes. My allocation was to be Grenville Division as a Signal Boy, Class 263/264 in 19 mess; Long Covered Way. Our instructors were Yeoman of Signals 'Tiny' Fuller and PO Telegraphist Meadows.

The routine of HMS Ganges was hard but fair and as we were being trained as members of the Royal Navy, not the Sea Scouts; what else could one expect. In all, fifteen months were spent at Shotley; which looking back over the years was excellent training for what was to happen in the years ahead.

As a trained Signal Boy, I left Shotley in June 1938; to go to my chosen depot of Chatham. My stay there did not last long and was soon given a draft to HMS Sussex; which was the part of the First Cruiser Squadron, Mediterranean Fleet. Other ships of the squadron were HMS London, HMS Shropshire & HMS Devonshire; all County class cruisers of 10,000 tons, armed with 8-inch guns.

We were sent out in a troopship from Southampton, which took a week to get to Malta, where we disembarked and were taken out to HMS Sussex by motor boat which was lying in Grand Harbour. Once onboard, we were taken below to the Boys' Mess deck; which was port side forrard to be allocated a locker and space to sling our hammocks. There were four signal boys in our draft; myself and Tom MacFarlane. Of the others, I do not remember their names.

Having found the Flag Deck, we were mustered and inspected by our Chief Yeoman, Tommy Tucker. He was a man of 38 years but to us boys of 16½ years he seemed an old man;

The signal staff in those days was as follows

1 x Chief Yeoman of Signals
2 x Yeoman of Signals
4 x Leading Signalman
4 x Signalmen
4 x Ordinary Signalmen
4 x Signal Boys.

Quite a staff, but we needed everyone for a ship of our size.

The Spanish Civil war was raging in 1938 and we used to spend a month at a time on Spanish Patrol. this entailed cruising off the Spanish coast outside the 3 mile limit, keeping an eye open on shipping that was breaking the blockade. We were caught up in several incidents on these patrols. One was the SS Stansgate, off Barcelona, which was trying to run the blockade but was intercepted by a Spanish cruiser. We negotiated the release of this British ship and she proceeded into harbour. HMS Sussex used to anchor Palma Valencia, also Barcelona and boats from the shore used to come out and circle the ship begging for food. We used to give them supplies through the open port-holes, for which they were very grateful. On an occasion there had been an air raid on Barcelona one afternoon while the 'Sussex' was cruising off shore and after the raid the aircraft circled the ship. Our crew were ordered to 'Action Stations' but in the event nothing happened and the planes flew off. At another time, our 'postie' was caught ashore in Palma when there was an air raid in progress and the motor boat was sent in double quick time to pick him up at the harbour, where he had been landed.

Life in the Med Fleet in 1938 was really rather good because as can been seen, we cruised around quite a great deal showing the flag etc.... We had the Munich Crisis towards the end of '38 when the ship was sent to Marseilles to pick up a draft of men to crew the old burning drifters, which were in Alexandria harbour. This entailed some hard steaming at 28 knots, also; we were a bit cramped onboard for space. Our Commander was promoted to Captain for his part in organizing and the smooth running of the operation; so we had two four ringed captains onboard for a while.

HMS Sussex took part in the last Spring Manoeuvres of 1939, when the Home Fleet came out the Med, prior to war. One of the exercises was with the radio controlled Queen Bee aircraft, which was shot down by a massive barrage from the fleet. The Tribal class destroyers exercised at night with an attack on the fleet with dummy torpedoes. With what result, I do not know. The Home Fleet went back to Portsmouth in due course and the cruiser squadron went to Alexandria, which was now our main base. We stayed at Alexandria, going to sea every so often; but we were restricted to what we could do. The ship was allowed to steam at maximum speed of 12 knots and the firing of the 8-inch guns only happened every 3 months. This was to save money and expense for the government of the day. HMS Sussex was in harbour at Alexandria on September 3rd, 1939, when war was declared and immediately went to 4 hours notice for steam. Within a week, in company with HMS Shropshire we left Alexandria; went through the Suez Canal and down to Simonstown. A force was formed to patrol the South Atlantic for a German pocket battle-ship which was attacking our ships and sinking them, in the area. The force would steam in line abreast about 20 miles apart, hoping we might see the enemy, but looking back it was more like looking for a needle in a haystack. The ships had no radar in those days, so our searches were very limited. However, we did have our Walrus aircraft which used to be catapulted off the ship and do a search about 100 miles radius. The aircraft went off on patrol one day and never returned, a search was made but without luck.

Whilst out on one of the patrols in the South Atlantic, the ship received an urgent signal that a German liner named 'Watussi' had broken out of harbour from the Gold Coast and was trying to make it back to Germany. In company with HMS Shropshire we went to full steam ahead which was 32 knots to try and intercept her. After steaming for about 8 hours we came up to the 'Watussi' but the ship had already been sent alight and the seacocks opened. The entire crew and passengers had taken to the life boats and were some distance from the ship. At 'Actions Stations' our 4-inch guns opened up on the burning ship and she sank within a few minutes. We then had the job of rescuing the survivors from the open boats. They were onboard for a few days until the ship got back to Simonstown.

HMS Sussex used to remain at sea for 2 weeks at a time, then return to port to re-fuel etc.. then after 3 days in harbour the ship would be off again, on yet another patrol. this went on until Christmas 1939, when the 'Battle of the River Plate' took place. Early in 1940 HMS Sussex went to Ceylon to pick up a convoy of Australian & New Zealand troops and escort them to the Middle East. When this was done, we were ordered home to England for a short re-fit. We sailed into Liverpool in March 1940 and tied up near the Liver Building. Our ship was an immediate sensation in Liverpool because the cruiser was the light grey colour of the Mediterranean Fleet. The people of the City had never seen an RN ship that colour. We were given the freedom of the city and everything was 'harry freemans' - what a time.

I left HMS Sussex soon after she went into dry dock. At that time I was an 18 year old and a fully fledged Signalman. Within a very short time I was drafted to a Hunt Class Destroyer - HMS Hambledon - which was being built at Swan Hunter Yard, Wallsend-on-Tyne.

But that is another story.............

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