I was brought up in a farming community in the Clay Cross area; I left school at the age of fourteen and although my parents had other plans for me, I nevertheless became a bricklayer. In 1938, I had to sign on as a Militia boy and was called up in January 1940.
I joined 666 Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers and by the end of February, we were with the B.E.F. in France. We didn’t know about Dunkirk, but in June 1940, we were evacuated from the port of St. Nazaire by a destroyer, the H.M.S. Highlander, and were to board the H.M.T. Lancastria. However, from the crowded deck of the destroyer, we saw The Lancastria bombed. We were hastily moved onto a coal boat, The City Of Mobile, after which we took no further action in the rescue operation.
Our next port of call was Plymouth from where we collected food. From there, we went to Southampton, where we boarded a train to Leeds. Our ‘billet’ for the night was the concert hall section of the Leeds Town Hall, although we used to say that we’d slept on the steps of the Town Hall. Reveille was sounded by my friend, Sapper Cliff Southall, at the console of the large concert organ; he played a beautiful piece of music, the “Rubinstein Melody In F.”
It was a considerable time later that I discovered that we had witnessed, in the bombing of the Lancastria, the worst maritime disaster in history, as 5,000 lives had been lost in just 20 minutes. This fact has never been published in the history books and it was not until the Lancastria Association was formed in the 1980s, that this disaster became public knowledge. Winston Churchill forbade any official publication of this incident and the Public Records Office will not release any documentation relating to it, until 2040.
After being re-equipped for Arctic weather, we were dispatched on the H.M.T. Georgic, along with the cross channel boat Konigam Emma, and escorted by the cruisers, H.M.S. Norfolk and Suffolk, to Iceland. These vessels later became famous for their involvement in the sinking of the Bismarck.
Our objective in Iceland was the construction of a Naval Base in a very large fiord called Hvalfjiordur, which became part of history in the Battle of the North Atlantic.
Many famous warships visited the fiord and the Officers and Ratings would come ashore to stretch their legs and socialise in the Naval Canteen and billets. They would reciprocate our hospitality by allowing us to see what life was like on board their ships. Sometimes, friends and relatives would turn up and if their shore leave was 24 hours or more, we would arrange transport into Reykjavik.
Protection of the fleet whilst in the fiord was paramount, therefore the entrance to it was protected by a controlled minefield. It was operated by the Navy from a building on shore. Following a severe storm, the ships dragged their anchors and considerable damage ensued, including some to the building that was protecting the controls of the minefield, putting it out of action.
We were not a very popular bunch of engineers because while the repairs were going on, the Station Commanders posted a destroyer each side of the minefield. The captains described us using unprintable terminology, but it basically meant that we were the lowest form of life. The work took about four days and it was done in below zero temperatures.
Before we could start the air compressor we had to start a fire under it to warm up the oil. The repairs were done against all odds and weather conditions; all the station log said afterwards was, “Minefield back in action.” Although the Royal Navy was the senior service, there were times when they could not do without the Royal Engineers.
One good thing that came from this episode was that the station had better wireless reception, and in the evenings, they tuned in to the B.B.C. Home Service. That was the first time I had heard the “Force’s Sweetheart,” Vera Lynne. Life was not all doom and gloom.
I talk with pride of my time at the Naval Station; it helped to piece together some of the ships that have made their mark:-
H.M.S. Cossack of the Altmarck incident in a Norwegian Fiord. This made a name for its Captain and it became folklore among the Merchant Navy. Captain Vian has earned his place among the Naval heroes because at the time, Norway was a neutral country and the Captain should not have breached the country’s neutrality.
H.M.S. Hood had been in port a couple of weeks before she was sunk and we played against her crew at football.
H.M.S. Prince of Wales, when it came in after the Bismarck incident. A Padre came to our jetty and said, “Can you row me over to the Prince of Wales, she has no boats?”
H.M.S. Bulldog, famous for capturing the Enigma code machine from U-boat 110, was a frequent visitor, her distinguishing feature being a chequered flag painted on the stern.
H.M.S. Victorious, the aircraft carrier, came in at the same time an American carrier U.S.S. Wasp, a ‘flat top’, was in port. Some of the sailors from the Wasp were on shore, and some of their comments such as, “Gee wiz, what’s this kid?” were often heard. My comment was, “What a beauty!”
One of the Americans’ casualties in early 1941 was to a destroyer, U.S.S. Reuben James which had been patrolling off Iceland and was damaged by a U-boat, it was secured to a British Destroyer and brought into the fiord for repairs. It later saw service in the Pacific with distinction.
For the remainder of the story, I am indebted to Ron Goodyear who served in the Duke Of Wellington’s Regiment, which had been transported to Iceland on the H.M.T. Lancastria, in May 1940, her penultimate journey.
In 1940, Winston Spencer Churchill visited Newfoundland on board the H.M.S Prince Of Wales, to meet President Roosevelt. On his return, he visited troops in Iceland. In addition to inspecting the troops in Reykjavik, , he made a speech on board H.M.S. Ramallies. This we heard on shore and to this day, I say, “I wish tape recorders had been invented.”
In a photograph from Ron’s collection, and by courtesy of the Lancastria Association, I have made a montage of the visit and the Lancastria’s tragic end.
Following the Prime Minister’s visit to Newfoundland, shipping activity from the U.S.A. increased in the fiord. In my autograph book, I have an entry dated August 11th, 1941 which reads: “George H Price 4th Division U.S.S. Mississippi, Your American Sailor Friend.” I also transported sailors into Reykjavik from the aircraft carrier, U.S.S Wasp. I believe this is sufficient proof that the U.S.A. was involved in WWII long before Pearl Harbor.
Living in a remote area of Iceland, we always had to consider the weather. In summer, it is light for 24 hours a day and in winter, there is only 2 hours daylight except on clear frosty nights. The phenomenon of the Northern Lights, (the Aurora Borealis) with its changing colours, was a sight to behold.
Returning to Great Britain, we were part of the team that experimented with P.L.U.T.O. (Petrol Line Under The Ocean) and leading up to the invasion, I was privileged to be stationed with the navy in H.M.S. Abatos, a shore station adjacent to Southampton Waters. This was the building in which R.J. Mitchell did the design work for the Spitfire. Our part in the invasion of Europe did not start until 40 days after the invasion had commenced and the under water pipeline had been completed from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg. From storage tanks, near Cherbourg, we laid two pipelines alongside the roads and through the plantation to storage tanks near Rouen and on to the Dutch border.
When hostilities were coming to a close, we carried out garrison duties. It was fitting that on the days before V.E. day, we were stationed in Le Touquet. This was where my grandfather, Col/Sgt John Hoult died from his wounds on the 14th of May, 1915, in W.W.I. He was buried in a War Cemetery in the adjacent village of Paris Plage. I was Guard Commander on the eve of V.E. Day, and on V.E. Day, I was able to visit the cemetery and pay respects at the grave of my grandfather whom I have never known; only seen in photographs.
By L/Cp 1908893 J.K.W. Hoult R.E.