HMS ROYAL OAK
potted history is in memory of my uncle William
"Billy" Tate, his friends and shipmates.
the early 1930's, work was very hard to come by in Southwick-on-Wear (now a
district of Sunderland), and
many of the young unemployed men left the area in search of work.
Many of them headed for the more prosperous South whilst others looked
to the armed forces as a means of employment.
Although Billy Tate of Nelson Street, and Harry Howe of Scott's
Terrace, Southwick, were lucky and had started work in 1932 at Hylton Colliery, many of their friends were not so lucky and could not find work.
Both were from families that had only worked in the shipyards of the
town and both of them found the work down the pit to be hard and dangerous.
Due to the number of people out of work it looked as if they would have
to endure the hardships down the pit, as, any change of job looked out of the
day, in 1936, Billy got talking to his old schoolmate Tommy Thompson who was
home on leave from the Royal Navy.
Tommy soon had Billy convinced that the life on the ocean wave was for
him. Billy asked Harry Howe
to join. Harry, then asked another friend, Harry Langley, and eventually, all three applied to join. They all took the entrants exam and medical at
Newcastle and, a week later, they received letters to say they had passed and
that they should report to the recruiting office at Rye Hill, Newcastle on 7th
September 1936 where they would receive an advance of pay of five shillings.
Billy was particularly pleased to be getting out of the pit as he had
been involved in two serious accidents, the latest of which resulted in a coal
blackened scar over his right eye. More of their friends followed and pretty
soon Harry Dodds and Michael Reagan also signed on.
On 8th September 1936, Billy Tate, Harry Howe and Harry Langley travelled to Portsmouth to join HMS VICTORY where they signed on for a career, which appeared to hold a more secure and less hazardous future. Billy Tate and Harry Howe both enlisted as 2nd Class Stokers and, following initial training they were drafted to different ships.
Billy Tate shortly after enlisting
Billy was drafted to the Repair Ship, HMS RESOURCE, on 31st March 1937 where he was upgraded to 1st Class Stoker on 1st August.
Whilst serving on this ship Billy wrote to his mother who read his letter and exclaimed, "Poor bairn, he's got a sty on his eye". When someone else read the letter it was found he was explaining that he was near the "Isle of Skye". His homecomings were always a time of much excitement for his sisters Maud and Freda and his youngest brother Leslie. He would often arrive home laden with gifts and, on one occasion, on his return from a trip that included a visit to Gibraltar, he brought home a canary, complete with the cage.
Billy Tate Stoker 1st Class
Billy was drafted back to HMS VICTORY on 23rd November 1937 where he served until the following year. Whilst home on one period of leave he bought a piano for his youngest sister Freda and he was best man at his sister Maud's wedding on 27th August 1938. In September 1938, because of the 'crisis' in Europe, Billy was drafted to the destroyer HMS IMPULSIVE, which he joined at Portsmouth.
HMS Impulsive at Malta
Harry Howe, meanwhile, was posted to the coal ship and minesweeper HMS FERMOY in the Eastern Mediterranean.
'crisis' lasted for three weeks before both found themselves drafted to HMS
VICTORY barracks as advance party to re-commission HMS ROYAL OAK.
HMS Royal Oak
of the older battleships in the fleet, HMS ROYAL OAK had been laid down at
Devonport Dockyard in 1914 at a cost of £2,468,269. A battleship of the ROYAL SOVEREIGN class, she had a
displacement of 29,150 tons and carried a complement of some 1200 officers and
ratings. Like her sister
ships, HMS RESOLUTION, HMS RAMILLES, HMS HMS REVENGE and HMS ROYAL SOVEREIGN, she had been built
for action in the First World War.
Following her completion she in fact saw action at the battle of Jutland. She again saw action in the Spanish Civil War when, in February 1937, an anti-aircraft shell fired by the defending forces fell on the quarterdeck of HMS ROYAL OAK, which was then the flagship of Admiral CG Ramsey. The Captain, two other officers and two ratings were injured. On another occasion 3 bombs were dropped near the ship when she was steaming near Gibraltar. In November 1938 she was selected to carry the body of Queen Maud of Norway from this country, where she died, to Oslo. The ship was the eleventh holder of the name in the Royal Navy, the first being built in 1663 commemorating an oak tree near Boscobel, Shropshire, in which Charles II hid himself after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
Royal Oak about to fire a broadside
HMS Royal Oak about to fire a broadside
laid down in 1914, she was not commissioned until 1916 and within one month
was in action at Jutland and was the next ship astern of HMS IRON DUKE, flagship
of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe. In
1934 HMS ROYAL OAK underwent extensive modernisation and repairs at a cost of
around £1,000,000. During
the modernisation the ship was partially fitted with armour plating, this was
mainly confined to above and just below the water line level but the ship
remained particularly vulnerable to underwater attack.
When the King visited the Home Fleet in Weymouth in 1938, he spent half
an hour in HMS ROYAL OAK, flagship of the Second Battleship Division
and saw a programme of harbour drill.
HMS Royal Oak leaving Portsmouth November 1938
HMS Royal Oak leaving Portsmouth November 1938
On being posted to HMS ROYAL OAK, Billy Tate and Harry Howe found themselves in the company of other Sunderland men. Frank Carr, Millfield; Edward Holyoak, Southwick; Mathew Finlay, Hendon; George Gillis, Grangetown; James Hearn, Marley Pots; Leading Seaman Edward A Boxall of Hendon; and Joseph Palfreyman of Plains Farm. The crew also included many men from the outlying areas of Sunderland and included Joseph Miller, Joseph Hayes, Frank Green, Frank Carr, William Fowles, Eric Walker, Roland Arno, Dalton Jackson, Thomas Naisby, George Watson and Thomas Jackson.
On 7th June 1939, they all took part in the commissioning ceremony in HMS VICTORY, Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth. Following the ceremony, over 1000 of the ship's company marched behind the Royal Marine band, the mile or so from the Barracks to board the ship at South Railway Jetty in Portsmouth dockyard. The ship was commissioning for two and an half years service in the Mediterranean Sea, and, shortly after the ceremony she sailed on a shake down cruise in the Portland area. It was then learned that Hitler had marched into Czechoslovakia.
HMS Royal Oak anchored in the River Forth in 1938
The Home Fleet was then assembled at Weymouth shortly afterwards and then the ships were dispersed to their home ports for summer leave.
Billy Tate at home on leave
the end of August 1939, the Home Fleet were again assembled, this time at Scapa
Flow, under War Orders. Whilst there, they received a visit from the First Lord
of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who went aboard HMS ROYAL OAK and addressed
the ships company regarding the worsening situation in Europe. After war was declared things remained quiet at Scapa
Flow and preparations for war were made.
Royal Oak leads the Fleet during manoeuvres in 1938
HMS Royal Oak leads the Fleet during manoeuvres in 1938
at Scapa Flow in early September 1939 some of the crewmembers witnessed the
first German reconnaissance aeroplane fly over on 6th September.
By now all hopes of a visit to the Mediterranean had gone.
On 8th October 1939, HMS ROYAL OAK, with other units of the Home Fleet, was
despatched to intercept the German Battlecruiser GNEISENAU and ten other ships
of the German fleet. Due to
lack of speed the ROYAL OAK was unable to keep pace with the other British
units and, after a severe buffeting in heavy seas, and a fruitless search, the
fleet returned to Scapa Flow on Wednesday 11th October 1939.
HMS ROYAL OAK dropped anchor in the Northeast corner of Scapa Bay, some
1500 yards South of the old seaplane carrier HMS PEGASUS (ex HMS ARK ROYAL). The majority of the fleet then left Scapa Flow in the
next couple of days and were dispersed to other safe anchorages, the majority
of them making for Loch Ewe on the West coast of Scotland.
ROYAL OAK began to make good the damage sustained on her recent sorty, during
which, due to the very stormy seas, many of her lifesaving Carley rafts were
washed away or badly damaged. Storing
ship was another priority and a large amount of Naval Stores and Victualling
Stores were taken aboard. During
Thursday 12th and Friday 13th a succession of barges and lighters were brought
alongside laden with stores. Friday
13th was also pay day and a large amount of cash was paid to the 1200 or so
crew members, but, due to the fact that the ship had steam up and was under
four hours notice to sail, few of the crew had the opportunity to go ashore to
spend any pay.
HMS Royal Oak at anchor
Friday 13th October turned out to be a lucky day for Harry Howe.
the forenoon of the 13th, Harry was summoned to see the Regulating Chief Stoker
who then asked Harry if he would like to go onboard the drifter HORIZON to
relieve the Leading Stoker. He
jumped at the chance and, together with a Leading Stoker who was to relieve
the Petty Officer Stoker they went aboard the drifter that was lying alongside
the ROYAL OAK. Once aboard, he was introduced to the rest of the small
crew and he was asked if he knew anything about coal fired boilers to which he
replied that he did. He was
then ordered into the stoke hole to do a bit firing, which he did comfortably.
During the afternoon Harry was told to go aboard the ROYAL OAK and pick
up a few belongings from his mess to last him overnight.
Harry went aboard and bumped into Billy Tate who light-heartedly asked
him if there was any room for stowaways.
Harry told him that after collecting a few things, he was going inshore
with the drifter and would be tied up overnight at Kirkwall pier.
The drifter DAISY 2 would therefore spend the night tied up alongside the
HMS Royal Oak
Shortly after 1am on Saturday 14th October 1939, a German U boat torpedoed HMS ROYAL OAK as she lay at anchor in Scapa Flow, which resulted in the death of over 800 of the crew. Many of the crew died in their beds, others while they kept watch and some in the icy waters of the Flow as they battled to swim to safety. Two separate torpedo attacks were carried out, the first at four minutes past one in the morning struck just under the bow, and word quickly got round the ship that the jolt was in fact due to a malfunction in one of the machinery spaces. Meanwhile, investigations into the cause of the explosion were being carried out in the ROYAL OAK and U 47, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien, was busy reversing course to fire a torpedo from her stern tube. The torpedo was fired but failed to detonate. The submarine then carried out a search for further targets but failed to find any so commenced a second attack on ROYAL OAK, firing three further torpedoes some twelve minutes after the first attack. From the second encounter the first torpedo exploded on the Starboard side somewhere beneath the Boys messdeck, whilst the second, slightly aft of this, devastated the Stokers messdeck. The third torpedo wreaked similar havoc to the Marines messdeck. One of the hits also involved a small arms magazine and the ship immediately began to list as balls of flaming cordite incinerated anything that would burn as they blasted through messdecks and passageways. Many of the crew were burned alive as they slept in their hammocks; others were badly scalded as clouds of steam engulfed them.
of the crew were asleep in the citadel below the armour-plated deck.
Hatches through this deck were protected by a 2" armour plate and
were mounted on runners. As
the ship began to list to starboard, the armour plates began to slide across
the hatches, cutting off the means of escape for the crew and unless someone
pulled on the toggle that opened the hatch, escape was impossible.
It was not possible to pull on the toggle and climb through the hatch
at the same time. As the
ship listed further to starboard, water cascaded into her through the
portholes, the first row of which were situated only ten feet above the sea.
To assist with ventilation whilst in harbour, many of the portholes
were open, and wooden light excluding ventilators masked the portholes to
preserve the blackout that was in force.
HMS ROYAL OAK took only 13 minutes to turn completely over and sink with over 800 men still trapped inside her. A few men escaped from the portholes after she sank by removing the wing nuts on the light excluding ventilators, and, floating to the surface, they emerged in a sea thick with furnace fuel oil, which was escaping from the ruptured fuel tanks. The thick, tar like, substance made swimming very difficult and everyone in the water were coated thickly with the oil; some even swallowed large quantities of it. HMS PEGASUS, anchored some 1500 yards north of ROYAL OAK, alerted by the initial explosion, sent one boat to investigate.
On hearing the explosions from the second attack, PEGASUS sent all
boats to the rescue. Before
daylight dawned it became apparent that ROYAL OAK had sunk with a loss of 833
officers and men, whilst some 420 or so crew members were rescued.
Considering that the war was only a matter of a few weeks old, the
ROYAL OAK was the second major loss for the Royal Navy which, on 17th
September, had lost the aircraft carrier HMS COURAGEOUS, also in a torpedo attack,
with a loss of 518 of her crew.
the Sunderland men in ROYAL OAK there were few survivors, only James Hearn,
Leading Seaman Edward A Boxall and Harry Howe were saved. In the confusion that followed the sinking, Harry Howe
was initially posted as missing as there was no one who could vouch for his
whereabouts. Billy Tate was
also saved but was very seriously burned; the ship’s Padre plucked him from
the sea. Frank Carr (23),
Mathew Finlay (22), Edward Holyoak (16), William Powles (18), Frank Green
(20), Jack Hayes (22), William Gillis (21), Joseph Miller (19), Eric Walker
(16), Dalton Jackson (24), Joseph Palfreyman (19), George Watson (19), Thomas
Jackson (19), Gordon Gibson (17), Roland Arno (16) and Thomas Naisby all
perished. Many of the survivors were suffering from burns and
exposure and the majority were clad in only underwear.
Everything they possessed, including their pay, which they had received
a few hours before on the Friday, lay on the seabed. About one dozen of the crew were in a very serious way,
suffering from burns caused by either the cordite flash or the clouds of
steam. Shortly after 8am,
Billy Tate and the other seriously injured were transferred from HMS PEGASUS
onto a tender belonging to the hospital ship SAINT ABBA.
The tender then made its way across Scapa Bay to Lyness naval base
where the injured were transferred to the hospital ship. There, the medical staff began the treatment of the
horrific burns and other injuries.
On Tuesday 17th, the Germans conducted an air raid on the Fleet
Anchorage at Scapa Flow and HMS IRON DUKE was holed by two bombs which landed
alongside the ship and she had to be beached before she sank completely.
HMS Royal Oak firing a broadside
Many of the survivors of ROYAL OAK were embarked in the accommodation ship VOLTAIRE and they had a good view of the attack. Bombs also rained down around the hospital ship SAINT ABBA, which healed over precariously and the injured were rocked about in their cots in the sick bay. Miraculously she escaped a direct hit. Small boats took the ROYAL OAK survivors embarked in VOLTAIRE to the island of Flotta in the middle of Scapa Flow. There, they were landed and told to scatter until after the air raid. Captain Benn of HMS ROYAL OAK protested to the Admiralty and requested that his men should be removed from the dangers at Scapa Flow. Following his protest, the men on Flotta and the remainder of ROYAL OAK survivors were taken to the port of Scrabster on the mainland for transfer to Thurso and the rail journey South. The SAINT ABBA, with the seriously injured men aboard, sailed during the early evening for Invergordon Naval Base where the men were transferred to the new Naval hospital. Families of the more seriously injured were sent for.
A comprehensive list of crew members, on the night of her sinking can be found on the next page, or click here.
Tate's mother and father, Maud and William, were deeply shocked when they saw
their son at the hospital. He
was bandaged from head to toe and only small openings in the bandages were
left for his eyes and mouth. Nearly
all of the time he was in a state of delirium but, when he realised his
mothers presence, his first words to her were "I broke through for you
he was able to tell how he and another youth were trapped in their bunks when
the ship sank. Scalded by
clouds of steam, they managed to squeeze their way through a porthole to the
sea where they were picked up. Lodgings were obtained on a farm near the hospital
where his parents were within easy reach for visiting.
As well as comforting her son, Maud Tate assisted the medical staff in
any way she could and did anything from cleaning to helping to change
dressings. This also helped
to take her mind off the situation.
After a few days at Invergordon, William Tate senior realised there was
little he could do to help his son, and, worried by the fact that they had
little money to keep them both in Invergordon, decided to return to his work
in the shipyards of Sunderland. On
hearing of his plight on his return to Sunderland, his workmates arranged a
collection of money and sent him straight back to Invergordon to be with his
wife and son.
On his return he discovered that the condition of his son was gradually deteriorating until, on Friday 27th October, Billy Tate died from his horrific burns. This was a particularly hard blow for the grieving parents as they had recently lost two other children, Jimmy, who drowned whilst swimming in the River Wear at Southwick, and Mary, who died whilst working in London. The body of Billy Tate was accompanied back to Sunderland by his mother and father and arrangements were made for what may well have been the largest funeral ever seen in Southwick.
On the miserably rainy day of Tuesday 31st October 1939, the funeral of Billy Tate took place with six of his friends acting as pallbearers. The streets were lined with Billy's former friends and colleagues from the colliery and the navy, family friends, neighbours, shipyard workers and even total strangers, touched by the plight of the family, turned out to pay their respects. The Methodist Church on The Green at Southwick was full to capacity as the coffin, draped with the Union Jack was carried slowly past the silent congregation. Following the service, the cortege made its way slowly up Old Mill Road to Southwick Cemetery where Billy Tate was laid to rest, in a grave he now shares with his mother and father.
Billy Tate Headstone, Southwick Cemetery
As well as the headstone in Southwick cemetery acting as a permanent
reminder, the name William Tate is proudly displayed on the huge Naval War
Memorial, which overlooks the Solent on Southsea Common, Portsmouth. On that memorial, all of the Naval personnel from the Portsmouth
Command of the Royal Navy who made the supreme sacrifice during the Second
World War are remembered.
Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien - U47 Captain
A radio broadcast, made by Prien on his return to Germany, and the publication of the book "Mein Weg Nach Scapa Flow", ghost-written for Prien the following year, put grave doubts in people's minds. Prien's story conflicted with the official British version of the sinking so greatly that it was suspected that some sort of 'cover up' story had been invented.
outbreak of the Second World War Commodore Donitz, who was in charge of the
German U boat fleet, had a plan, which would avenge the German Navy for the
humiliation suffered in the first war, when, the German fleet was interned at
Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles. The internment culminated in the German fleet being
scuttled by its crews and the majority of the fleet sank while at anchor.
Donitz believed that the Home Fleet anchorage could be penetrated by
one of his U-boats and great damage inflicted on the British Navy.
On Sunday 8th October 1939, U47 sailed from her German base at Kiel to
carry out the mission. Shortly
after 7pm in the darkness of the evening of Friday 13th, U47 surfaced and
headed for Kirk Sound. Shortly
after 11pm Prien had to submerge again when, proceeding through the Pentland
Firth nearly three miles from Kirk Sound, he encountered a Merchant ship off
Rose Ness. U47 surfaced
again and headed for the 200ft gap, which lay to the north of the block-ship
SORIANO. The 15ft 6in
draught of U47 would pose no problem at this point, which had a depth of over
20ft at high water, and, unknown to Prien, was monitored by neither floating
nor shore patrols. As Prien
made his way through the gap, the fast flowing, following tide, was making
steerage very difficult, and, at one stage the U boat brushed the steel wire
leading from the bow of SORIANO to her anchor near the shore, and grounded
itself at the stern. The
current, flowing faster by the minute, pushed the bows of U47 back on course
and the stern broke free from the bottom.
The raging current carried her into Scapa Flow.
As Prien manoeuvred U47 towards the main anchorage in Scapa Flow he
found it bare and so headed towards the North East corner of the Flow.
At a range of 4,000 yards HMS ROYAL OAK was sighted and the attack, which
led to the sinking, was begun when the range was closed to 3000 yards.
The whole operation was carried out while the submarine was on the
surface and, after the final torpedo was fired, U47 began the retreat.
As U47 headed back toward Kirk Sound a flash was noticed as the burning
cordite in ROYAL OAK vented itself against the night sky.
Finally, at 2.15am, U47 and her 40-man crew again reached the open sea
and set course for Germany.
Back in Scapa Flow, following the sinking, the remainder of the fleet were ordered to raise steam and sail to sea as soon as possible. The destroyers were to remain inside the Flow and were under orders to prevent any submarine from escaping. The idea that a submarine had sunk HMS ROYAL OAK was met with disbelief amongst the crews of other ships in the Flow, but, shortly after 3am, preventative measures were taken to stop a submarine escaping. Shortly after 10am, the Admiralty ordered that all possible exits be sealed with nets and all possible measures taken, including the use of aircraft, to stop a submarine escaping and informing the German Admiralty. Divers carried out the first check of the hull of ROYAL OAK on Saturday evening to try and ascertain the cause and the extent of the damage. Rumours circulated that she had been the victim of sabotage whilst counter rumours circulated regarding a submarine attack. Some horrific sights confronted the divers as they moved about inside the hull containing over 800 bodies.
The belief that the submarine was still trapped inside Scapa Flow
persisted until after a radio broadcast by Prien on his return to Germany, the
following Tuesday. The
Admiralty in Whitehall, still determined that the submarine must be trapped
inside Scapa Flow, sent a signal to Scapa Flow telling them to search under
the Starboard side of ROYAL OAK, in case the submarine had been pinned
underneath as she rolled over. The
First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, made a preliminary statement
to the House of Commons on that same Wednesday.
He informed the House that a U boat had sunk HMS ROYAL OAK, but at
that stage he did not know how it had penetrated the defences.
A Board of Inquiry was under way at Scapa Flow and he reported that the facts he was quoting then, might have to be changed in the light of the findings of the Board of Inquiry. In time, the Board of Inquiry reported that ROYAL OAK had been sunk by torpedo and even listed 11 possible ways by which the submarine could have entered the anchorage. It concluded that the night was fairly light and the sky had been lit up by the Northern Lights. Recommendations were made regarding the eastern entrances to Scapa Flow and a decision was made to sink more block-ships as a short-term measure. The blame for the affair was laid on the shoulders of Admiral Sir Wilfred French, Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetlands. This was remarkable, as it was he who pointed out all of the breaches in the defences to the Admiralty, some three months before the sinking. He even stated that he would be willing to sail a destroyer through Kirk Sound, let alone a submarine, but the Admiralty had failed to act. He was placed on the retired list. Later, Churchill ordered that all of the eastern passages be blocked and a sea wall, made from reinforced concrete, be built at a cost of £2,000,000.
work took four years to complete and was undertaken by over 500 British and
Irish workers and some 1200 Italian prisoners of war.
The causeway, now known as the Churchill Barriers, provides a road link
between the islands of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimp Holm, Lamb Holm and the
mainland of Orkney. In
1957, the Admiralty announced plans for the salvage of the wreck of ROYAL OAK,
public outrage followed and the plan was dropped.
The ship was left to lie in peace and a single wreck buoy marks her
position. Naval divers had
made efforts shortly after the sinking to try and locate pieces of any
torpedoes but the search proved fruitless.
In May 1973, a local scuba diver discovered the remains of a torpedo
and a second diver later found the remains of another.
Both were of the G7e type that had been carried by U47.
The serial numbers were checked and verified with the German Admiralty,
which confirmed the authenticity of the find.
Of the other Southwick men who joined the Royal Navy with Billy Tate, Harry Langley found himself drafted to the aircraft carrier HMS GLORIOUS, which, on the outbreak of war, was serving with the Mediterranean fleet. GLORIOUS was launched it 1916 as a Light Battle Cruiser of 18,600 tons and her main armament was four 15" guns, eighteen 4" guns, two 3" anti aircraft guns and two 21" torpedo mountings, she was capable of 31.5 knots. She served the last two years of the first world war during which she was converted for mine laying duties. After the war the Washington Naval Treaty was drawn up in 1922 to limit the size of battle ships. Some ships were partially disarmed but it was decided to convert all three of the COURAGEOUS class battle cruisers into aircraft carriers and by 1930 the FURIOUS, COURAGEOUS and GLORIOUS were in service in their new roles. The eight 15" guns from COURAGEOUS and GLORIOUS were kept in store and fitted to the last and heaviest British Battleship ever built, HMS VANGUARD that commissioned in 1946.
September to December 1939, HMS GLORIOUS became part of a hunting party, which was
to search for the two German pocket battleships DEUTSCHLAND and ADMIRAL GRAF
SPEE. She scoured the Mediterranean Sea and, with the
battleship MALAYA, passed through the Suez Canal to continue the search in the
Indian Ocean. Although the
search area covered half of the world the DEUTSCHLAND still managed to return
home undetected to her home port in Germany.
The GRAF SPEE was not so fortunate however, she was intercepted off the
River Plate where a sea battle ensued with HMS AJAX, ACHILLES and EXETER.
She then made for the port of Montevideo in Uraguay where her Captain
decided to scuttle her on 19 December.
HMS GLORIOUS was recalled from the Mediterranean in April 1940 to take part
in operations off Norway. She was used to ferry aircraft, which were to operate
from the frozen lakes against the advancing German forces. Shortly after Narvik fell to the Germans, the GLORIOUS
embarked the remaining RAF planes for the passage back to England.
Due to a shortage of fuel, GLORIOUS was detached from the rest of the
Home Fleet to make her way home accompanied by the destroyers HMS ACASTA and
the afternoon of 8th June 1940, HMS GLORIOUS was surprised by the German
battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU who immediately attacked the three
British ships with their 11" guns. HMS
managed to hit the SCHARNHORST with a torpedo in the bow but all three ships
were sunk. Harry Langley
was amongst the 1500 sailors who died on the three ships from which only 46
men survived. It was nearly a fortnight before his parents, who lived in
Barrie Square at Southwick, were officially informed that 22 years old Harry
was missing, believed to be a prisoner of war.
Harry, a Stoker 1st Class was in fact lost with the ship.
Also reported missing in GLORIOUS was another Sunderland man, Stoker
1st Class Jonathan Hold, aged 23, of Hartford Street, Hylton Lane Estate.
The German account of the sinking was not reported in the Sunderland
Echo until 17th June:
"Units of a German naval patrol in the Arctic Sea met the GLORIOUS accompanied by two destroyers. The GLORIOUS attempted to let her planes take off, but the first German salvoes prevented this. The two destroyers threw out smoke screens, which caused the German guns to pause her fire. The British destroyers repeatedly fire torpedoes but the German units manoeuvred to avoid them. Concentrated fire put the first destroyer out of action and then the water closed over it. The GLORIOUS tried to make off but could not get up full steam on account of her damage. She continued to fight. A glow of fire was to be seen in the GLORIOUS. Slowly the giant began to turn on to her side. Pouring out flames and smoke she drifted with the wind. A moment later she sank. But the destroyer does not give up. Our guns silence her forward guns and the enemy is at length silenced. The destroyer is in flames, and slowly begins to sink. Steam rises, probably through the boilers bursting. Then the waves close over those brave opponents too".
The end of HMS Glorious
After the sinking of HMS ROYAL OAK, Harry Howe was sent back to Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth and was soon drafted to another ship. When the allies took over the French fleet, Harry was drafted to the "rat infested" French frigate LA FLORE.
He was later drafted to the minelayer HMS PLOVER, on which he helped to launch many mines, and, on which he was promoted to Leading Stoker.
HMS Plover, minelayer
In 1942, he left PLOVER to pick up the new destroyer HMS BRECON at Southampton and saw a lot of action in her in the Mediterranean on convoy escort.
After two years on BRECON, he left her in North Africa in 1944 and took passage to Malta in a French cruiser, where he picked up an Italian cruiser for passage to Italy to join the monitor ship HMS ABERCROMBIE.
HMS Abercrombie mined at Salerno
HMS ABERCROMBIE, with her 15 inch guns, was used to support the army during beach landings and would get as close into shore as possible, before partially submerging onto the sea bed to give a more stable platform for her guns. During one such mission off Salerno she struck a mine and had to return to Malta for emergency repairs. After repairs and replenishment of stores she set sail for Tripoli and Harry nearly lost his life when ABERCROMBIE struck another mine and was very badly damaged. The ship was prevented from sinking and again returned to Malta for repairs. Harry then left her and returned to Portsmouth to do his Petty Officer Stoker course. On completion of his course, Harry was drafted to the destroyer HMS ANTHONY where he was promoted to Petty Officer Stoker and on which he saw the war out.
When the war ended, Harry decided to stay on in the Navy and signed on to complete 22 years, on completion of which he would qualify for a Naval pension. He subsequently met and married a Portsmouth girl and settled down there.
Tommy Thompson, meanwhile, left the navy and returned to Sunderland to pick up life where he had left it in 1936. Harry subsequently went on to serve in the sloop HMS ROCHESTER,
the aircraft carriers HMS ILLUSTRIOUS
and HMS IMPLACABLE,
and the ocean minesweeper FIERCE.
HMS Fierce at Malta
In 1954 he was drafted to the Motor Torpedo Boat Base, HMS HORNET, followed by a spell in the submarine depot ship HMS MAIDSTONE.
He then joined HMS WAKEFUL where he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer Stoker.
He left her in Malta in 1956 to join the aircraft carrier HMS BULWARK, which was en-route to the Eastern Mediterranean because of the worsening situation between the Arabs and the Jews.
HMS Bulwark in 1956
Following action there, BULWARK then proceeded on a World 'cruise', which was a fitting way for Harry to end such a distinguished career. On the return leg in 1958, Harry was flown back from Gibraltar to the place where it all started in 1936 - HMS Victory, Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth, to commence his demob. He joined the navy in 1936, he says, "for a good meal", but, in 22 years service, "never got one". After leaving the navy, Harry worked as a stoker on the Admiralty tugs based at Portsmouth dockyard, and lived at Wilson Street, Stamshaw. He then emigrated to Parmelia, Western Australia with his family in the late 196O's. Sadly, he has since passed away.
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