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Veterans of the Arctic Convoys 1941 - 1945

On the twenty seventh of May 1943 I stepped out of the train at Skegness. There was a reception committee waiting for me plus, of course, others. They were not wearing red coats as Holiday camp employees did even though we were going to a holiday camp. They were, instead, wearing blue serge. As we drove through the entrance to Butlins Holiday camp (HMS Royal Arthur) I noticed a notice a sign that had been left from a more peaceful time "Our true intent is for your enjoyment" never a truer word has been spoken in jest .

After spending a month being taught how to march in step, rifle drill etc; etc; I was sent to Dundee. Here, we were billeted in a nice hotel and attended a Radio College, which had previously been used to train Radio Officers in the Merchant Navy . I thought “ this isn't too bad , first a holiday camp then a hotel. “Once I attained 20 WPM in morse, in November, I was sent to another holiday camp in Ayr (HMS Scotia) this time not quite as pleasant - unheated chalets. It was so cold if you scrubbed your hammock and hung it out to dry you could pick it up later and stand it in the corner .

We had more instruction in morse, codes and cyphers then in January it was back down South. It was an annex of Chatham barracks at a place called Borstal. It was alongside the original prison for youths just outside Rochester.

On the 11th of January I joined HMS Apollo at Hebburn in Newcastle, I arrived about 2100 hours and half an hour later we sailed. I was sat down in front of a receiver and checked out by a three badge Leading telegraphist and , after satisfying him , went on solo watch. We had a mixed lot on our mess deck, Signalmen (bunting tossers), Telegraphists (sparkers) and Coders. Within those were two journalists, a stockbroker who was an Advertising Manager for Persil ( he was also a WW1 Fighter pilot ) and a professional soccer player for Perth. The rest were sprogs like me (laboratory assistant) and a coal heaver.

Our first destination was Scapa Flow for commissioning trials , anti aircraft gunnery firing at drogues . I was on the bridge talking to the pilot of the towing plane (Australian ) , he didn't think much of our accuracy . He said to me "Tell your skipper I am pulling this b......d not pushing it".
When the first guns were fired one of the crew was sitting in the heads and the toilet pan disintegrated under him . Fortunately he was unhurt apart from his dignity. I know the ship was laid down to do 47 knots, we did manage 42 knots in a calm sea. Quite impressive, like an overgrown MTB.

After Scapa we proceeded to Milford Haven where we spent the next 15 months picking up mines though , on a couple of occasions , we loaded up mines at Loch Alshe. On our first operation we called into Plymouth en route. Naturally, I think we were all apprehensive as in the newspapers at that time there were descriptions of massive defences installed by the Germans along the French coasts. Before leaving for France that evening a church service was held on the quarter deck in which "Drakes Prayer", before he attacked the Spanish Armada, was read.

I was 18 at the time like many others on board, and thought what the hell are we getting into. After a few trips the mine lays became routine.We worked in conjunction with Coastal Command Sunderlands. They carried out flights over the English channel and sent position reports of any enemy shipping which we intercepted and decoded. On one occasion we arrived off Brest, reduced speed to 10 knots and started to lay the mines. About a quarter of mines had been laid when echoes appeared on the radar. It was assumed they were hostile. A enemy report was sent and mining was stopped and we vacated the area as fast as possible. Black Prince (Cruiser) and three destroyers (Haida , Huron and Tartar and at times Athabaskan - which was sunk by the enemy one night when we were absent) were our escort on the seaward side.

Black Prince, which had received the enemy report had observed a radar target heading towards them and gave the order to fire. The target they observed was Apollo, our radar IFF ( Identification friend or foe) had broken down, despite visual signals plus radio our escort started to bombard us for 20 minutes and with 98 shells, plus we still had 120 mines in board.What saved us Black Prince thought we were much closer and under ranged. I think we had a few shrapnel holes in one of the funnels. Whether because of this incident or the sinking of the Canadian destroyer Athabaskan, Admiralty decided not to use a cruiser for our escort as they did not want to risk a cruiser being sunk by the Germans.

After this we laid many more mines without incident.

After the completion of mine laying, we later proceeded to Portsmouth where we had some work done involving installation of extra communication equipment. Later on approximately June the 5th we joined the invasion fleet anchored between the Isle of Wight and the Needles where ships were anchored in their hundreds. During the day captured German aircraft with the invasion markings on their wings (white stripes ) flew over the Fleet to acquaint crews with aircraft recognition. That night the fleet started to move out - we did not.

On 7 June we had guests come on board. General Eisenhower, Admiral Ramsay and all their staff plus Wireless Telegraphists who took over our W/T Office. We then set sail for the Normandy beaches. On arrival you could see wreckage of landing craft. The ship started cruising along
the line of ships carrying out bombardment, ships like Warspite and Lord Roberts, a monitor which had one sixteen inch gun on board, every time it fired the recoil from its massive gun caused it to heel over then slowly to move back onto an even keel. Among the ships were American ships and , as were carrying the four star flag of an American general on our main mast , they dipped their flags in salute. As our W/T office had been taken over by the Admiral’s staff I was at a loose end and just stayed on the upper deck watching the bombardment. Now and again various Generals ( including General Montgomery) came on board to liaise with General Eisenhower. I decided to go down below to get a cup from tea from the W/T Office I stood outside the office drinking my tea when there was a crunch and the ship started to heel over. The wireless staff came running out the office and up the ladder nearly knocking the tea out of my hand. I went and looked in the office, it was empty . As the ship appeared to have stabilised I went up to our mess and took my personal papers out of my locker. On the upper deck there were aerials laying on the deck and various other bits and pieces. It appeared that General Eisenhower has asked our Captain to go closer in to shore to observe the action. Unfortunately the ship had gone round the wrong side of a buoy and finished up on a sand bank. Endeavouring to free the ship we lost one screw and one blade of the other three bladed screw. General Eisenhower disembarked onto a destroyer . Later that night we limped back to Portsmouth at 5 knots in a convoy. As the remaining screw was unbalanced the ship appeared to be bending amidships as we progressed. As a result of this incident the captain faced court martial. En route the ships in the convoy were firing at strange aircraft with flames coming out of the tails. These were the first of the doodlebugs (V1), General Eisenhower interceded on his behalf as he had requested the ship go closer in. One contributing factor was the bridge was so crowded with the VIPs staff that the navigator was asked to leave the bridge.
The Captain lost one years seniority. As a foot note to this , in 1787 a Royal Navy ship was pursuing a Dutch ship and ran aground on a sand bar. The pilot was court martialled. The name of the ship HMS Apollo!

On June the 13th the ship was towed by a Dutch sea going tug up to Newcastle for repairs taking two days. On arrival we tied up alongside the HMS Manxman, (same class as the Apollo). She had been torpedoed and had a massive hole in the hull. I noted it was where the W/T office had been. Repairs were not completed until the 30th of September, during which period each watch was given six weeks leave each.
My leave started out with a bang . I left our local station and walked home. As I was walking up the back garden path I heard a doodlebug approaching . Suddenly , its engine cut out and appeared to be diving toward me, but fortunately it passed overhead and landed in a wood adjacent to the housing. I heard later on that one had hit the local railway station. I thought to myself b......r this I am going back to sea – it’s safer.

After completing working up trials in Scapa flow Apollo was transferred to Western Approaches Command. Due to the use of the snorkel U-boats were posing a threat as theydid not have to surface to recharge their batteries and could operate closer to the shores of UK. Fourteen deep minefields were laid in the Northern and Southern approaches On 12 January 1945, we left Scapa Flow to carry out Operation Spellbinder which was to carry out attacks on a North bound enemy convoy and lay a minefield in the path of the convoy adjacent to Utstra Island (Norwegian coast). The operation was to be carried by three forces.

Force one to attack the convoy. Force two, which comprised Apollo, and two destroyers to provide a smoke screen for the minelay. Force three consisted of two aircraft carriers. Aircraft from the carriers shot down a JU88 and drove off approaching torpedo bombers. This was a night time operation, the sea was like a mill pond and with a cloudless sky and full moon visibility was unlimited. After we finished our minelay we headed back to Scapa at high speed. At a pre- briefing we were advised that there were 50 aircraft based at the local airfield and that radar ashore was not very efficient as the soldiers were busy fraternising with the local girls. During the minelay a shore based electronic navigation aid was utilised to provide accuracy. Apparently those on the upper deck could see the headlights of the German army on a coast road.

On January 15th we returned to Western Approaches Command laying another ten mine fields , the last being laid , at the end of March , most of the time we had an escort. There was the odd occasion when they carried out depth charge attack . In February, returning to Milford Haven in fog we collided with the corvette HMS Clarkia. Luckily damage was not severe but provided us with a holiday in Pembroke dock . It was a break from the Irish sea.

Our final operation was to take part in Operation Trammel . For some time UK had tried to get permission to lay mines in the Kola Inlet ( North Russia ) .There had been a problem trying to detect Uboats in the Kola Inlet owing to "Thermal layering" , where differing temperatures
at different depths affected ASDIC results. With an escort of three “O” Class destroyers (also carrying mines ) after a delay in refuelling , the minelay was carried out with a further shield of seven frigates on our seaward side. I believe one of the frigates was sunk. We had Russian observers onboard who were a bit apprehensive about the safety of shipping due to the mines . So we steamed over the minefield just to prove it was quite safe, except of course for submarines.

Little did we know the European war would be over in a matter of weeks and it was a pity that the mines had not been laid earlier. Our final operation was on VE day when we took Prince Olaf and his Cabinet back to Oslo . It was a beautiful day. We met a German minesweeper whose Captain came on board to guide us through the minefields. Sailing up the fjiord leading a number of ships it was an impressive scene as the Norwegians came alongside in their boats singing their National anthem. In Oslo the German soldiers were still driving around in their trucks , whilst fighting was taking place between the Quislings ( collaboraters ) and the free Norwegian Army who had been secretly training in Sweden. I saw some females who were having their hair shaved off for fraternising with the Germans .Whilst I was ashore a German soldier came up to me
and said "We did not lose the war it was the people in Germany that had". I said "I couldn’t care less it’s over and done with". Obviously he was not aware of the destruction that had taken place in Germany . I believe the phrase he made was made by some Germans after the WW1.

The number of mines we laid, according to official figures, was 8,571. How effective that had been is unknown. Confirmed was one U-boat in the Kola Inlet and , in recent years , the wrecks of two Uboats have been found off Newport where mines were laid by Apollo and Plover.

Unfortunately I was drafted off the ship at this time . I was sorry to leave it and many shipmates. Apollo was to join the Pacific Fleet. After a couple of months I finished up in Sydney (Golden Hind). In January, I was sent to Shanghai as base wireless staff, swapping from ship to ship as they arrived. I must have spent a few weeks on about seven cruisers and one destroyer. Our main task was to take two hourly position reports from merchant shipping transiting between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tsingtao. The reason was that piracy was taking place along the Chinese coast.

Finally I was demobbed in August 1946 , returning to my old job as a laboratory assistant in a chemical laboratory in Bankside power station. Unable to settle down I spent a year at Radio College to obtain a Merchant Navy Radio Officers certificate. Whilst impatiently waiting for a ship I saw an advert for vacancies in the New Zealand navy - they had purchased six Loch class frigates from UK and wanted ex RN members to crew them. It was for a three year engagement - but that’s another story!


Stan Welsh: HMS Apollo : My Story

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