Sunday, 10 June 2012

What My Dad did in The War

LAC Ronald Hunnisett
Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War? So read a recruiting poster for the 1914-18 conflict, which showed two small children with their father. The little boy is playing soldiers on the floor, whilst the little girl, sat on her father's lap is asking the question of the uncomfortable looking daddy, who obviously had not taken part in the fighting. It was a clever poster, designed to ensure that men would come forward to join the colours. This of course, was in the days before conscription was introduced, which was much fairer method of ensuring that nobody could duck out of the process.

Nearly twenty one years after the end of the Great War, the World found itself plunged into another conflict and a chance sighting of the poster mentioned above set me thinking about the role played by my late father, Ronald Hunnisett and the many millions of ordinary men like him that played their own small part in great events of history. 

Ron's own wartime service began on 27th April 1939, when he enlisted in the Territorial Army, joining his local Royal Artillery Regiment in his native Hastings, which at that time was still equipped with horse drawn 18 pounder artillery pieces dating from the Great War. It was not until shortly before the outbreak of war that the unit was mechanised and eventually upgraded to the superb 25 pounder field guns.

Dad was just an 'ordinary Joe' and would have been the first to admit that in comparison to some, his wartime service was modest but the truth is, that because of my Dad and his generation, we are now able to enjoy the freedom that we now take for granted. In short the World as we know it exists thanks to these men and women. Dad would never have described himself as a hero but what he and his generation did was nothing short of heroic. Many were not as lucky as Dad, who despite the disruption to his life, did at least live to see the peace returnand to enjoy the fruits of victory.

Ron's first overseas service was as part of the ill-fated expedition to Norway. Things didn't go quite according to plan; the ship carrying the guns was sunk, so my Dad's unit arrived in Norway without their most vital equipment. Ron didn't speak much of this aspect of his service, so I guess that perhaps he saw things that he didn't particularly wish to dwell upon but after a short time, he was evacuated back to the UK with his unit in order to re-equip. Some leave followed, during which time on a visit to London with an Army friend, he met the lady who was to become his wife and my Mother. The young lady concerned, who was to become Doris Hunnisett worked with and was a close friend of my Dad's friend's wife and though they met in the summer of 1940, it was to be another four years before they were to meet again and be wed after a long distance courtship. 

During this leave period, my Dad spent a couple of nights fire watching with my Grandfather, who was an ARP Warden and following this leave, it was overseas again when he embarked at Liverpool on the troopship "Athlone Castle" to head for the Middle East. The convoy sailed on 10th September 1940 and it was about this time that Ron somehow acquired a camera and though against the regulations, he began to keep a photographic record of his overseas service. The "Athlone Castle" formed part of convoy AP3/1 and sailed via the Cape and Aden to Suez where Dad disembarked to begin nearly four years service in North Africa. By this time, Ron was serving with 9 Amphibious Operations Battery, Royal Artillery and looking at his photographs, one can see that although his unit wasn't at the front line, he did see service at places that became household names in the Desert War. Places such as Mersa Matruh, Siwa and El Alamein feature in his album. There are shots of knocked out tanks, 25 pounder guns, a 'pranged' Kittyhawk fighter that was once flown by the Australian 'ace' pilot Nicky Barr and the German mobile gun that was knocked out by Private Adam Wakenshaw of the 9th Bn., Durham Light Infantry in an amazing action that earned the 28 year old Geordie a posthumous Victoria Cross and which enabled his unit to withdraw in safety.

Knocked out tank - Mersa Matruh
Somewhat unusually, in December 1941, Dad transferred from the Army to the RAF Regiment. He was never very forthcoming about the reasons behind this but always stated it was simply a case of volunteering because he and a mate had heard that the RAF boys slept in beds with sheets, whereas in the Army they only had blankets! I could never get any more out of him than that, so maybe it was as simple as that!

Dad's RAF service was basically uneventful, although he was at El Alamein for the second battle and remembered vividly the massive artillery barrage that preceeded the battle. His later service was away from the front line and he spent time in Trans-Jordan (as that country was then known) as an instructor and later in Jerusalem and Habbaniyah before as he described it in his album 'The day I waited for' came along and Ron returned to the United Kingdom, arriving back at Greenock on 6th June 1944, when a certain other operation was beginning at the other end of the country!

Dad was then posted to RAF Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, which could not have been a more different environment than the North African desert. In September 1944, Ron was married to Doris and the newly married couple enjoyed a weekend's honeymoon in Stornoway. Dad's service record at this time shows him undertaking an Embarkation Assistant's course in preparation for his unit's departure for the Far East and the Japanese war. Fortunately for Ron and many more like him, the Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki precluded the need for him to venture overseas once again and the remainder of his service was spent quietly in the UK before he was demobbed in July 1946.

Dad didn't speak much of his wartime service to me at first, although when he realised that I was genuinely interested, he did open up a little but only to talk of the happy times he had. Whenever he met up with friends from his wartime service, then they would talk and many is the time I remember Mum raising her eyebrows and commenting "Here we go, back to the Desert!" as some of the more well-worn stories were wheeled out!

After his demob, Dad eschewed the chance of joining the Metropolitan Police as he felt that he had "spent enough time in uniform" but instead worked in the Merchant Navy, mainly in a shore based role for the next thirty five years before spending his final working years with the London Borough of Greenwich until his retirement in 1987. Sadly, Ron passed away in 1990 aged 68 without being able to enjoy very much of his retirement.

My Dad's medals
Dad would never apply for his wartime medals as he rightly felt that he shouldn't have to apply for something that were rightfully his and that had been earned by nearly seven years of service to his country. However, some twenty years after his passing, I did apply for them and today his modest array of medals are proudly on display at my home to remind me both of him and his wartime service. Ron didn't perform any heroic acts and his service was unremarkable but he and millions like him gave up a large chunk of their youth in order to preserve the freedom of subsequent generations. My Dad was a hero to me and we owe all of his generation a huge debt of gratitude.

I have uploaded some of Ron's wartime photographs onto the Flickr photo-sharing site and they can be viewed by following this link

I'd also be interested in hearing of the wartime exploits of the ancestors of any of the followers of this blog, so if you have any stories to pass on, please let me know.

Published Sources:

Arnold Hague Convoy Database

Unpublished Sources:

Author's family reminiscences

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Mighty Hood and the pursuit of Battleship Bismarck

I had planned to publish the following entry last weekend but laptop problems precluded this, hence the slightly belated recognition of the anniversary of this action.

KMS Bismarck (Bundesarchiv photo)
Last weekend marked the seventy first anniversary of the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck following an epic six day sea chase following her break-out from Norway, during which time just about every major unit in the Royal Navy was involved in the hunt for this threat to British sea power. During this chase, Bismarck also obliterated the pride of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood in a short action which saw the loss of over fourteen hundred of her ship’s company leaving just three survivors to be plucked from the icy North Atlantic.

The origins of the Bismarck can be traced to the rise to power of the Nazis. During the Great War, the Imperial German Navy had challenged the Royal Navy for supremacy at sea although following their tactical defeat at Jutland had rarely ventured from their home ports except when proceeding to Scapa Flow for their ignominious surrender in 1918, an event which haunted the officers of this service, including one Erich Raeder, at that time holding the rank of Fregattenkapitan or Commander. By the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, Raeder was an Admiral and the man chosen by Hitler to head the Kriegsmarine as the reconstituted German Navy was to be known. Hitler vowed to build a new High Seas Fleet and although Raeder did not support the Nazis or agree with their ideals, the promise of heading this new fleet was too hard for him to resist. 

 Erich Raeder (Bundesarchiv photo)
At the heart of the ideal was ‘Plan Z’, a scheme for a balanced fleet of battleships, pocket battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and of course submarines designed to challenge the Royal Navy, still at that time by far the largest in the World. The Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz were amongst some of the first vessels in this new fleet. To build a new fleet virtually from scratch takes time but there seemed no cause for hurry, for Hitler had assured Raeder that conflict with England would not come before 1945, by which time this new fleet would be virtually complete. Like most of Hitler’s promises, this one was to go seriously awry and when war came in 1939, the fledgling Kriegsmarine, could in Raeder’s own words, do little to the British “except to demonstrate to them how to die gallantly.”

It was against this background in August 1940 that Bismarck was commissioned at her builders, the famous Blohm & Voss yard in Hamburg. Despite their numerical disadvantage, it was planned that Bismarck should form a powerful squadron with her sister and the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and to make a foray into the Atlantic creating havoc amongst the British convoy routes. This mission was planned for April 1941 but this formidable squadron was never to see action. Gneisenau was torpedoed in Brest harbour and subsequently bombed whilst under repair, Scharnhorst needed boiler repairs and Tirpitz was late in being completed by her builders. A scaled down version of this sortie was therefore planned, with the giant battleship teaming up with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to mount the raid. Hitler, anxious to avoid the loss of his precious ships was wary of the whole idea but reluctantly went along with the plan and the two ships duly sailed from their Norwegian hideout on 21st May under the command of Admiral Gunther Lutjens.

The British had been aware of the vessels hiding away in the fjords and had organised photographic reconnaissance aircraft to capture them on film. Once they had been found to sail, the hunt was on and Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander of the British Home Fleet, ordered the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales to sail from Scapa Flow and intercept the German vessels in the Denmark Strait. Although powerfully armed, Hood was effectively obsolete, having been designed during the Great War and although scheduled for a major rebuild to bring her up to modern standards, the war had come too soon to allow this and she had had to continue in her un-modernised condition. To compound the problem, Prince of Wales was fresh from the builder’s yard and indeed, still had workers from Cammell Laird’s shipyard aboard ironing out snags in her main armament amongst other things.

HMS Hood in 1924 (State Library of Victoria)
At 05:52 on the 24th May 1941, HMS Hood opened fire, closely followed by her consort. Bismarck returned fire; her shooting was remarkably accurate and with only her fifth salvo, struck Hood a mortal blow with her 15 inch main armament. Her thin deck armour penetrated, Hood simply exploded – her magazines detonating and breaking the graceful battlecruiser in two. She sank in seconds and just three survivors were later pulled from the water by the escorting British destroyers. Of the remaining 1,415 men of her ships’s company, not a trace, not a single body was to be found. The pride of the Royal Navy had gone. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen then shifted their fire to the Prince of Wales, which in turn was also heavily hit but not before the British battleship had hit the German vessel hard, piercing one of her fuel tanks, causing her to leave a tell-tale stream of fuel oil in her wake and more importantly limiting her range and scope for further operations.

The secrecy of the mission blown and the German battleship seriously damaged, Lutjens decided to abandon the sortie and make for the French Atlantic port of Brest. Prinz Eugen was detached and slipped away undetected by the shadowing British cruisers, whilst Bismarck forged her way to safety. The British used their huge numerical superiority to bring in ships from all over the Atlantic and even from the Mediterranean. The aircraft carriers Victorious and Ark Royal launched strikes with their venerable Swordfish torpedo bombers and it was a strike from the latter carrier, which was to strike Bismarck what proved to be a mortal blow.

A fortunate torpedo strike hit Bismarck right astern and disabled her steering gear, causing her to steam an erratic and ultimately circular course. She could only await her doom, as almost within touching distance of Brest and air cover but in appalling weather, she was tracked down by the Royal Navy. Tovey’s flagship HMS King George V  had rendezvoused with another battleship, HMS Rodney and prior to this, Bismarck had been harried by British destroyers, attempting to further slow her with torpedoes. Shortly after daybreak on the 27th May, the British battleships opened fire and between them began to pulverise the once proud super-battleship and by 10:00 had reduced her to a blazing wreck, with hundreds of men dead and dying. Tovey called on any of his ships with torpedoes remaining to use them on Bismarck to finish her and shortly after 10:40, having been hit repeatedly by torpedoes fired by the cruiser Dorsetshire, the former pride of the Kriegsmarine slid beneath the waves, leaving hundreds of men in the water.

To paraphrase Lord Nelson, humanity after victory has always been the predominant feature of the British Fleet and following the demise of the Bismarck, the victors set about rescuing the vanquished survivors but in a final tragedy, one of the lookouts aboard Dorsetshire, spotted what he thought was the periscope of a U-Boat. Fearing the worst, the British abandoned the rescue attempt and scattered, having rescued just one hundred and ten men, one of whom later died. There was no U-Boat, although one was soon to arrive and managed to pick up a further three men with a German trawler rescuing another two. Out of a total of two thousand two hundred men aboard Bismarck, there were just one hundred and fourteen survivors.

This article is dedicated to those men of Hood and Bismarck, the pride of their respective fleets, who did not return to their home ports.

Published Sources:

The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck - Ludovic Kennedy, Cassell 2001
The War at Sea - Julian Thompson, Sidgwick & Jackson 1996