Veteran Stories:
John Thomas Wood

Navy

  • Photo of John Wood and his comrades during Convoy Signalman training in January 1943. John is pictured on the top right standing.

    Courtesy of John Wood
  • Photo of John and his mate Jamie in Sydney, Australia.

    Courtesy of John Wood
  • Portrait of John Wood in 1943.

    Courtesy of John Wood
  • Photo of HMS Escort Carrier Flight Deck and Island, in January 1946.

    Courtesy of John Wood
  • John Wood's Naval Identity Book, November 15th 1944.

    Courtesy of John Wood
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"I thought, oh dear, they’ve hit one of buoys and it came all the way down the side of the ship, bang, bang, bang, and it was just the thickness of the hull between me and it coming past."

Transcript

The first thing that happened, after being instigated into the navy, and being kitted out, etc., etc., in the navy base, we travelled as a group to Butlins Holiday Camp at Skegness in [Lincolnshire]. Much to our surprise, we should now become HMS Royal Arthur. And that was a term for the shore base.

And there for six months, we trained as convoy settlement, that was learning Morse Code for sound and lights and also flag, semaphore. And we had to also be familiar with the mercantile convoy signalman’s manual which was what all the masters of vessels had when they were in convoy.

On one ship, we went aboard and, as a signalman, usually they put you in with a mess on this particular craft and quite often, we found ourselves with a bunk in the sick bay. And in this particular ship, I was about midships on the port side going north and suddenly I heard, it was about 8:00 in the morning, I heard a bump, I felt the ship hit something. And it came down the side of the ship and I thought, oh dear, they’ve gotten so close, they’ve hit one of buoys and it came all the way down the side of the ship, bang, bang, bang, and it was just the thickness of the hull between me and it coming past. And we were not far from the stern but, a short while afterwards, there was a tremendous explosion and it transpires that the ship behind had hit a mine which was what that banging was, it was a mine which had come down by the side of the ship and it blew the bow off the ship following us. It didn’t sink straightaway and so it put into the Humber [a tidal estuary in northeastern England], which was one of the ports enroute.

And there were many many events like that occurring and each trip on its own was an adventure in a sense. As D-Day [the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944] neared, I was taken off actual convoy commodore’s list and assigned to a signal tower on the end of Southend Pier [extending into the Thames Estuary in Essex, England]. Now, Southend Pier was a mile and three quarters long and in peacetime of course it had, one end, it had a roller skating rink for entertainment and the other end, it had pier pavilions, cafes and things like that. But during the war, that end of the pier was the Thames Navy Control, who controlled literally everything that happened in that area.

Prior to D-Day, there was a large area for mooring something like 300 different vessels, which were gradually gathered together, ready for the D-Day operations. And all, emphasize that, all signals from those ships, from the shore, to the shore, from the shore, went through the signal tower on the end of the pier, which was about 70 foot high from the sea surface. And all the messages taken by lamp were passed by phone down into Thames Navy Control and acted upon there or if they wanted to do something with a ship, they would activate it and you would send the message out to that particular ship.

Now, on D-Day, prior to D-Day of course as I say, there were about 300 ships but when I say 300 ships, there were all sorts of ships. There were many pieces of the Mulberry Harbour, in fact there’s still one piece of the Mulberry Harbour there which fell apart when it was put in the wrong place at high tide and it landed and broke its back. The same misfortune happened to one of the American liberty ships, the [SS] Richard Montgomery, which was loaded with high explosives plus deck cargo of trucks and tanks, and that is still there today because they would never explode it because of the danger to the shore. The tanks and the trucks of course were easily removed but the explosives are still there.

We [HMS Advantage, a British rescue tug] arrived at Manus in the Admiralty Islands [a group of eighteen islands north of Papua New Guinea] which was being turned into a massive great anchorage for service craft, etc., etc. And we waited there for one of our sister ships to come, [HMS] Cheerly, who was the same size as us and there was an American tug which was twice our size and we eventually picked up this floating dock, the American on the port side and the two tugs in tandem on the starboard side.

And there were five men, I don’t know whether they were navy or what, onboard who billeted in one of the ballast tanks on the floating dock. And we towed this dock from Manus, all the way along the north shore of New Guinea, around the south island of the Philippines and all up the coast of Philippines, Subic Bay, where we had to load fuel by hand from 40 gallon drums and pour each one in separately. There was no way else. And we left there and entered into the China Sea on our way to Hong Kong.

And we ran into another hurricane, which is not called hurricane there, it’s called cyclone. And in the course of that cyclone, which again was about three days, we lost the tow. The tow rope between the Cheerly and the dock broke and then the same thing happened between Advantage and the Cheerly. Although we had an Indian destroyer as an escort, there was nothing much could be done and one of the seaman was severely injured with the snapping of the rope and hitting him on the head. So I’m afraid he didn’t survive.

Anyway, the typhoon was blowing back to the Philippines and with the American hanging onto the port side, fortunately, we were blown back into one of the northern bays of Philippines and we were able to link up. And we eventually arrived in Hong Kong a few days or so, maybe a week or so, maybe a week, before Christmas in 1945. And it was there that my demob[ilization] papers came through.

Interview date: 27 September 2010

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