When it’s all over, you suddenly realize, because you’ve just been told by your skipper, that within seconds of she being rammed, her torpedoes were, two of them, were hustling towards us or running down the side.
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When I was a 13 year-old schoolboy, visiting an uncle who ran a hell of a nice country pub at Gloucestershire and I used to spend summer holidays with him because he always had, as you can imagine, some damn fine horses. This was a wonderful place for a boy to spend holidays. While I’m there, a school friend of his turns up who’s just come back from the China station, one Lieutenant Tubby Linton, who later became Commander Linton, Submariner VC [Victoria Cross]. Here am I, a small boy sat at his feet in the snug of night dreaming or drooling over all these stories of far places, travel here, there. But of course, that was the motivation; I had no intention of going anywhere else when my turn came.
And one thing about joining up, I stood in line, having a fictitiously signed note from my father, giving me permission to join at 17. And then I sweated buckets, to be perfectly honest with you, thinking they’ll tumble to this, they’ll tumble to this, how can, blah, blah, blah. But I needn’t worry incidentally because as long as you could stand upright and walk and breathe, they were so desperate for recruits at that time, I think they would have recruited Mickey Mouse.
My very first operational boat which happened to be the submarine [HMS] Tuna and on the very first operational trip [Murmansk Run] Tuna sunk her first U-boat; that was U-644 [7th April 1943] up around North Cape [Norway]. And this again was a horrendous lesson because I think she was as surprised to find Tuna there as Tuna was to find her under those circumstances. It doesn’t much matter but when it’s all over, you suddenly realize, because you’ve just been told by your skipper, that within seconds of she being rammed, her torpedoes were, two of them, were hustling towards us or running down the side. It brings it home very quickly that you’d better be bloody good at what you do because if it’s not you, if it’s not them, it’s you, put it that way.
We didn’t have the warm clothing and all the wonderful stuff they’ve got today. It’s interesting to think back, what did you wear out there when the temperature was so bloody awful and the wind was wicked? And I remembered, I’m sure there were people I know, shipmates that would laugh if they knew I wore pajamas all the time under my navy rig and I also filched a pair of, don’t forget in those days, silk stockings because you didn’t have pantyhose then, that I filched from my mother. Oh I’m sure I made sure that the stokers back aft weren’t looking when I put these silk stockings on because it would have been a certain mayhem in the boat, I’m sure.
I had visions of two weeks lying on the beach, warm water swimming, ho ho ho, catching up with some sun. We arrived at 11:30 at night to the submarine base [on Malta] and at 6:30 the next morning, I’m on the picket boat [small multipurpose marine craft] going out to join [HMS] Torbay, whose gunlayer is just going into hospital. I’m a gunlayer at this point. And I clearly remember on the picket boat, this is audacious now, don’t forget I’m 19 or something, Commander Ant [Anthony] Miers, wonderful man who’d already won a DSO [Distinguished Service Order] and a Bar, and as a matter of fact, unbeknown to us, he’d also just won the VC [Victoria Cross] but it hadn’t been announced then and I didn’t know that and thankfully (laughs) I can’t think what I might have said if I’d known that and probably asked to be returned.
But anyway, as the picket boat drew alongside, this great man is up on the conning tower and I had the bloody temerity to say to him, this is a man who went on shortly afterwards to become Admiral of submarines, a fabulous man, fabulous man. Anyway, I had the temerity, I’m a 19 year old boy and I suddenly see myself going to sea in this monster as a replacement gunlayer, and I said, “you know, sir, you really don’t need me, I’m an able seaman LR3 [Leading Rate 3] and what you need is a leading seaman LR2.” And much to my surprise, I really was taken aback by this, he called by name and he said, “Cavendish,” and he’s talking down to me from up on the [submarine conning] tower and I’m in the picket boat alongside, “If I read you correctly, you and I may be good for each other.” Wow, and this great warmth, this all enveloping warmth came over me and I thought, wow, what a man. And then he spoiled it all by saying, “Anyway, you’re all they’ve got.” (laughs)
The gunlayer is the chap in charge of the gun. You open the gun hatch; depending on the boat you open the gun hatch while you’re still 15 feet under the water so you’re drenched before you begin. The water comes in, you’re up on the gun platform, you’ve got the damn thing, the gunlayer lays the gun, by that I mean you’re getting the angle on the barrel for want of a better term and the trainer is training it left or right or port and starboard. The gunlayer is bringing the elevation down or up, depending on what you need.
[HMS] Darthema was seconded to be the mother ship for the three X-Craft [midget submarine] that were called in to do the beach surveys in January of 1944. Now, the beach surveys came about because Admiral [Bertram] Ramsey, who was the senior naval officer for the D-Day planning, and his team, decided there was no point in sending all that heavy equipment, tanks and Armoured vehicles, across the channel if they land … They’d had problems with vehicles at Dieppe [1942 raid] I seem to recall. I don’t know if that’s factual, I remember being told that. And so the idea was to get the frogman [divers], that wasn’t a term that was used but the swimmers into the water to take surveys or density tests and sand samples of the various beaches. And they went from Dieppe right way around the coast. I seem to remember 33 different sorties to the beaches. But they were done by six remarkable Marine Commandos and it just so happened that I was aboard [HMS] Darthema when she was earmarked as the mother ship to house the three X-Craft that came alongside, at which I was delighted, and the six commandos.
The drill was that the X-Craft would take them four miles offshore and then they’d paddle ashore, are you ready, with a trenching tool, dig up the sand and bury their inflatable, take beach samples in these 12-15 inch hollowed out pieces of bamboo and my contribution there, if you recall, was that I had the good fortune to go to the hospital or the sick bay at Portland to get as many condoms as I could because they were the most inexpensive waterproof way of sealing the sand that was taken into the bamboo. Wonderful stuff.
They could take the sand samples back and get them tested, to see whether they were strong enough, i.e. the beach was strong enough, to withstand the weight of the armoured cars, the tanks, the trucks and all that stuff, which displaced a phenomenal amount of weight, as you can imagine. And certain beaches that were tested proved not to be successful. The sad part of this story, from a personal point of view, is that I know that sample results were offered to our American friends who very high handedly said, no, they were capable of doing their own resource studies, thank you very much, they didn’t want them. But by God, I think they could have used them later.
Diving from our point of view in submarines merely meant for most of us that you put on what we used to call a DSE escape tank, they were apparatus, called Davis Escape Apparatus Tanks, and that was a cylinder that lasted 20 minutes in those days, that you wore over your neck and put a tube in, you know, a thing in your mouth and a nose clip-on. And all that was designed for originally was an emergency situation where if a boat was in trouble on the seabed or anywhere, or if you got a wire or a hose snared around the prop, it allowed you enough time with luck to go out, inspect the damage, come back in and report it and if necessary with another tank, go out and uncurl the wire or whatever. That was the extent of my diving experience at that time.
I always thought the humour that ran through both ends of the boat in the navy was of a particular fine class of its own and it was the humour that saved the day. I can honestly say I was very proud to have served in the Royal Navy.