Life in the Engine Room
Alf Floyd was the senior rate in the Engine Room in May 1941
Alfred George Floyd
and his wife Dorothy emigrated to Australia as "£10 Poms" in 1952 and
fifty years later were interviewed at their home in
Tecoma, a suburb of Melbourne, by the
Upwey Branch of the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL). This brief
description of his early life and his wartime service after leaving HMS
Wanderer is based on that interview (see "Snapshot" from the DVD of the Interview).
Alf Floyd was born in 1915. His father was a Londoner but his Mother
was Edinburgh Scottish. Alfred and his Mother lived with his paternal grandfather in
Walthamstow, London, while his father was in the Army. His earliest memory is of a Zeppelin caught in the
glare of searchlights on a bombing raid over London. After the war his
parents returned to Edinburgh and Alfred was sent to the Royal High School,
a "toffee nosed school" whose distinguished alumni included Sir Walter
Scott and Ronnie Corbett. When he left school in January 1930 he got a
job as a
telegraph message boy in the Post Office for four years. He was bored
at the prospect of spending his life as a civil servant and left in
1932 to join the Territorial Engineers but he did not like the army and
in 1934 he enlisted in the Royal Navy.
went by train to London and from there to Chatham Naval Barracks, a
horrible place. He disliked the rigid class system and after Christmas
leave back home in Edinburgh he joined a mechanical training
establishment in the naval dockyard. He shoveled coal into a dummy boiler, lit the
fires and learned "all about boilers,
steam and engines". He was posted to his first ship, HMS Cairo,
a light cruiser, as a "sprog" and served his apprenticeship as a stoker
crew, old hands who had served in the war. Some of her crew members had
taken part in the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931 in protest at having their
pay reduced. After two years he joined the destroyer,
HMS Intrepid, in
the Mediterranean. During the unrest in Palestine the crew were sent ashore to
drive trains between Haifa and Tel Aviv and a Palestine
Campaign Medal was awarded.
was back at Chatham in 1938 during the Munich crisis when the troops
were mobilised. He left by train for Folkestone, crossed the channel in
the Maid of Orleans and from there to Marseilles where he joined HMS Sussex.
In early 1939 he volunteered to serve in 70 ft long torpedo
boats and went to Portsmouth to join them.
His glamorous service on MTBs was interrupted by a posting to an old
trawler towing a barge laden
with barrels and wire coils up and down the Thames estuary to detect
the magnetic mines which were sinking ships and threatening to block
the Thames to shipping. The barge detonated a mine off Southend Pier
and sank. He was engaged to Dorothy (he sent his engagement ring by
post to Edinburgh) and they were
married on 23 December 1939. Alfred was 24 and his young bride 17. They
spent their honeymoon in North
Berwick where the landlady cooked them a Christmas dinner. He returned
to his MTB at Dover where they lived in the Old Warden Hotel when not
at sea (or in air raid shelters). He enjoyed
his time in the MTBs, real "Boys Own" adventure stuff, landing
spies in France, picking up pilots shot down in the Channel, evacuating
troops from Dunkirk and Cherbourg, entering the harbour of one of the
Channel Islands and backing out hastily when they saw it was occupied
by German troops.
Dorothy became pregnant she was looked after by the "Navy wives"
but went home to Edinburgh for the birth. Alf was posted to HMS Wanderer
at Liverpool on May Day 1941 and left in December 1942 when she was converted to a
Long Range Escort (LRE).
Alf Floyd describes his wartime service in HMS Wanderer below Alf was a member of the V & W Destroyer Association and he wrote this article for their magazine Hard Lying which was republished by Clifford ("Stormy") Fairweather in the book of the same name which is
now out of print.
"In the Navy one rarely leaves a
ship for another without going through barracks. During the war I never
spent more than three weeks in barracks, after getting leave
entitlements. This time was to be no exception, but it did not worry me
for I was never enamoured with the place (Chatham Barracks).
It was usually overcrowded and run by those men that we called 'barrack
stanchions', this because for the duration of the war, they had nice
office jobs and were able each night to go to their homes in the area.
At this time it was probably the most unpleasant. There were air -
raids and all personnel had to go underground into the 'tunnel'.
Sleeping in the tunnel was most uncomfortable to say the least, it was
smelly due to bad ventilation. At first I decided to take my chance and
sleep in the barrack room where there was plenty of room, given that
most had billets in the tunnel. On one occasion the raids came too
close for comfort, and I did spend some time in the tunnel. It seems in
retrospect that I had become more conditioned to air raids and the
events of war. Nevertheless, I still get funny feelings in my stomach
when I hear a siren. This is because, out here in the hills overlooking
Melbourne the siren is used to call the volunteer fire fighters when
there is a bush fire.
This time I managed to get a weekend leave pass and decided to go to
Edinburgh. Rail travel in those days was tiresome due to the air-raid
warnings and the like. I was returning to Chatham, the train was held
up several times. This meant that I arrived in London too late to get
my connection to Chatham. I had to spend time in the centre of London
to await the first train out, which was the paper train. What to do? I
went to the canteen that I had often used at London Bridge. It was
non-existent having been the subject of many air-raids. However I
decided to cross London Bridge to find somewhere to stop. There was a
raid on and the searchlights were sweeping the sky. I got half way
across London Bridge when the bombs came down rather close. I retreated
to the London Bridge Station to the drone of the bombers. The station
was full and the steps leading down to the platform were covered with
human beings of all sizes. I reached the platform to find that people
of both sexes and all ages were sleeping up to within twelve inches of
the platforms edge. The canvas toilet facilities were inadequate by far
for so many people and the smell was obnoxious. I only had to spend one
night there. I pitied all those who were spending night after night
during the Blitz. I eventually reached Chatham in the early hours. I
was to again experience air-raids when I reached Liverpool, for that is
where I was about to go.
In a few days, I was posted on the drafting board to go to a Flower
Class Corvette. They had been introduced to act as convoy escorts and
equipped with depth charges. They were rather small an saucer shaped,
so they rolled quite a bit. I understood that there was no Engineer
Officer on the one I was to go to and I would be the senior engine room
I went off to the drafting office to explain that I was to get a
posting nearer to home. There was a huddle in the back room, and
eventually the draft to the Corvette was canceled and in it's place I
was to go to Liverpool to join HMS Wanderer.
On arrival at Liverpool, Wanderer
was at sea and I had to spend some time ashore in the building that
used to house Vernon's football pools. There were many of us staying
there and the night was spent sleeping on the floor. Lying there I was
not too happy as the roof was made of glass. It recalled the story that
I had heard of Chatham Barracks in WW1 when survivors were sleeping
under the drill shed glass roof.
Wanderer returned to Liverpool on the first of May and I joined her at
Gladstone dock. She was due for a boiler clean and each watch had a few
day's leave. I didn't get any as it was thought that I had had enough
before joining ship. During those eight days Liverpool was heavily
bombed, and whilst ashore I witnessed many homeless children and young
adults, unwashed, following water tankers to catch a few drops of water
from the tankers dripping taps. So many homes had been demolished and
many had lost their parents. They lived in air-raid shelters. The worst
hit area was Bootle and the dock area where most of the working class
At the time, the aircraft carrier Furious
was lying in Gladstone dock, lying at right angles with her were nine
destroyers in rows of three. We were the outside of the last three. The
worst night of the bombing was when an ammunition train and Bryant
& Mays match factory were hit and set ablaze. I stayed in my
hammock trying to remain calm until the shrapnel was rattling on the
ships side. I went up top and saw the outside ship of the first three
sinking, she had been hit below the water line. The next stick of bombs
missed us, but the ship next to us had a fire in the ready use
ammunition magazine. I doubt there was any ammunition there as the fire
was soon put out. The bombs that missed us went on and hit the dock
gate, so we were imprisoned in the dock until a tug came and pulled the
gate open. HMS Furious, the main target, remained untouched. She was
one of the pre-war carriers and I believe she survived the war.
Eventually we were able to get free and put out to sea, leaving the
raging fires of Liverpool in our wake. I was glad to get away, Feeling
much safer at sea. My first trip in Wanderer
was not to be a happy one, the old V&Ws were never intended for the
job in the North Atlantic. Toilets were few and very basic, water for
washing had to be pumped from a tank on the upper deck by a semi-rotary
pump. Sometimes the sea was coming over the deck and getting a bucket
of water was hazardous.
Convoys were usually in three groups, slow, medium, and fast. Fast was
best for us as the speed was about fifteen knots. We had quite a few of
those, which were mostly troop convoys going South. Most though would
be slow, where we would go to 20 degrees West and then return with
another home bound convoy.
With all the additions of war aboard this ship. Radar Degaussing and
the Acoustic hammer, meant that the space for living (which had never
been a priority in the V&Ws) had been reduced even further. It was
not unusual to have a foot descend on to the mess table whilst having a
morning cup of tea. Once a foot landed alongside my cup of tea followed
by the rest of the body, he immediately grabbed some bread and started
to eat it, not the done thing in the peace time navy, then we were very
fussy about cleanliness and no one would handle food without visiting
the bathroom. I remonstrated with this stoker, but he just ignored me.
So I said "Get your cap and be outside the office" this was normally
sufficient to make the point and then the incident is then usually
forgotten, but not this stoker, he grabbed his hat and went to the
office. I got a dressing down from the Warrant Officer for being too
particular. I learned that I was looked upon as an interloper, as most
of those on the mess deck had been together for a long time. Even
though I was senior rating on the mess I kept to myself and vowed to
never again discipline a rating. That was my first and my last.
At this time the U-boats were hunting in 'Wolf Packs'. They would
follow the convoy until there was a break in the escorts pattern, then
at night they would surface and sink a ship before diving and
scampering away. We were powerless in that situation, as depth charging
endangered those survivors in the water. The convoy screen was really
insufficient. We being Senior Officer zig-zagged ahead of the convoy
whilst another did the same astern. On each flank were corvettes or the
American four stackers. These U.S. destroyers were too heavy and rolled
badly in heavy seas. We received fifty of them in exchange for bases in
the Indies and other places. The best use for one of them was at St
Nazaire where Cambeltown breached the lock and was blown up.
On one of these trips we received a 'hurry up' signal to go to the
assistance of one of theses American destroyers, which had a Dutch
crew. It had been hit and was sinking. She actually sank as we came up
from astern. It was dark and we could hear the cries of those in the
water. We did rescue some of them but many were lost. It was after that
event that we were issued with battery operated red lights which
clipped to our life belts.
One of my earlier trips in Wanderer
was to the North where we expected to go to Iceland. We left Liverpool
and steamed between the islands of the coast of Scotland to Loch Ewe
where we anchored for the night and refueled. We left Loch Ewe and
steamed out into the Atlantic though the Faroe's and on to Iceland
escorting an outward bound convoy. Somewhere around the Denmark
Straights we took over a homeward bound convoy designated SC31 The
position of this convoy was just South of where the Hood was sunk,
which put us in the path of the Bismarck which was making South after
sinking the Hood.
Hood and the Prince of Wales were patrolling South when HMS Suffolk and Norfolk sighted the Bismarck. The Hood, Prince of Wales
accompanied by six destroyers steamed to intercept. On that fateful day
I had the first watch in the engine room. As I came off watch at 0400,
the torpedo men were lowering the guard rails and getting the torpedo
tubes ready I asked what was up and was told that we were in the path
of the Bismarck. I did not worry as we knew that the Hood
was on her way to intercept, we all felt that nothing could stop the
Hood. I turned in, and during the middle watch, at 0600 I awakened and
everyone was saying that the Hood had gone. It was unbelievable that
our great unsinkable ship had in fact been sunk. So it was that Hood
had intercepted and opened fire at 0540 and by 0600 she was no more.
Actually when I came off watch and we were getting ready to have a go,
the Hood was still in the game and Bismarck
was trying to shake off the two cruisers that had been shadowing her
though out the night. By 0800 we were only about 100 miles from the
On our way back to the UK we passed the force on its way back to Scapa Flow after Bismarck had also been sunk. We received a signal from the carrier Victorious
in reply to our congratulatory signal saying how lucky we had been. It
was pinned on the notice board for all to see. I was devastated when I
learned that there had been only three survivors, and my brother was
not one of them; 94 Officers and 1321 ratings had perished.
It had taken the entire Home Fleet, plus Force H from Gibraltar, the
Fleet Air Arm together with Catalina's from Coastal Command to finally
find, and sink the Bismarck. Her accompanying ship the Prinz Eugen managed to get clear and returned to Brest unscathed. Personally I think that was a great feet of seamanship. Bismark had sunk in flames, the crew fought to the last singing Sieg Heils. Survivors were few. So, Hood was lost, Prince of Wales damaged, HMS Mahona was sunk on the return journey. The position of the graves of those who went down with the Hood is 63.20 degrees North 31.50 degrees West.
On a convoy returning from Freetown, Sierra Leone, I was asleep in my
hammock when there was an enormous crash and the ship shook. I was out
of my hammock and half way up the ladder before I had time to think,
this was it, I thought, we have been hit. To get out of our lower mess
deck we had to go through a manhole just wide enough for one man at a
time. Despite the swiftness with which I had got to the ladder I was
not the first. In fact we had not been hit, when I got up on deck I
found that we were on the top of a U-boat, sending it to the bottom. We
had torn our Asdic dome in doing so and were lucky not to have taken in
water. We were credited with the sinking and the Skipper received the
Nearly every convoy during 1941-42 was fraught with danger. In most
cases the sea was the next big worry for the Atlantic is more often
rough than it is calm. From the time we left Liverpool Bay and caught
up with the convoy, we were on the alert. I rarely changed clothing
until we left the outward bound and raced to rendezvous with the
returning convoy. It always seemed safer then to change clothing. Life
belts were our constant companions.
All the glamour of the M.T.B's was gone and in its stead was the misery
of a small ship in stormy waters. The food was kept in wire cages on
the upper deck and was usually covered in salt spray. Cooking was
difficult to say the least, tinned meat and vegetables were the norm
with corned beef as an alternative. Little wonder that I made a
bee-line to an eating place that I got to know in Lime Street, to taste
real food without the sea spray.
On our return I was able to get home to see my distraught parents. My
Father could not believe that my Brother Charlie had gone, and when an
impostor arrived claiming to be a survivor, Dad went off to meet him. Of course
we knew that there was no chance of anyone surviving in those bitterly
cold and rough waters.
The sinking of our merchant ships were far too frequent, the U-boats
were having a 'Happy Time' sinking so many of our ships that Britain
was on the verge of running out of food. It was vital to find a way of
protecting our convoys against the U-boats or Britain would starve,
long range German bombers and Focke Wolf Condors were able to give the
precise position of the convoy's to the Wolf Packs. It was necessary to
have air protection. One day I witnessed the first flight of Sea
Hurricanes being catapulted from the foc'sle of a merchant ship. I
thought it was Audacity, but later found out that it was in fact 'Maplin'
I remember the pilot's name Lt. Everett. He had to ditch his plane and
did so alongside us. He was quickly picked up. That was the beginning
of the escort carrier, of which the Audacity was one. Sadly she was sunk in December of that year.
The rescue of survivors and ship's boats and the pitiful state that
some of them were in when we reached them, some had been adrift in open
boats for as many as ten days made me feel then, and still do, that the
Merchant Service never received the recognition that they deserved.
Some of their ships had been retrieved from the scrap heaps and should
never had been at sea. A six inch gun mounted on their deck made them
prey for the U-boats.
My last trip on Wanderer was
tricky, the constant dropping of depth charges had shook the condensers
badly, so much so that the tubes were leaking, so that the salt water
was contaminating the fresh water in the boilers. To correct this we
had to get away from the convoy routes and shut down. We had a Flower
class corvette circling round us while we in the engine room took the
inspection plates off the condenser and the E.R.A. plugged the leaks.
It was only a temporary repair. When we got nearer home we did a few
ahead and astern movements, only to find that we still had problems. It
was then decided that we would have to go to Chatham for a major refit.
It was to be a long job, so, I, and most of the ships company returned
to Barracks." Alf Floyd left Wanderer
at Plymouth in December 1942 when she was being converted to a Long
Range Escort in the naval dockyard at Devonport. His next ship
was an LST (Landing Ship Tank) repair ship, part of the Eastern Fleet
in the Indian Ocean but he was soon back in the Mediterranean on Lake
Bizerta in Northern Tunisia across the strait from Sicily. It was here
that he heard that his brother-in-law, Leading Signalman David Travis,
had been killed when his ship, the minesweeper HMS Abdiel
detonated two mines laid by German E-boats at the Italian naval base of
Taranto in September 1943. Dorothy also lost her Mother and Alf was
sent home on compassionate leave, a journey which took five days for
what should have been a two hour flight.
Alf was by now a PO Stoker and
was posted to a brand new S Class destroyer, HMS Serapis, Leader of the 23 Destroyer Flotilla escorting Arctic Convoys. Alf's next ship, HMS Suffolk, a heavy cruiser, was sent to join the Pacific Fleet. Alf left her at Sydney where he was stationed at the shore base, HMS Golden Hind, before joining HMS Ariadne, a sister ship of HMS Abdiel
in which Dorothy's brother had been killed. She called in at Nagazaki
six weeks after the dropping of the atomic bomb and Alf was deeply
effected by standing on the ashes of the fifty thousand men, women and
children who were killed. He returned to Britain from Singapore in HMS London and was discharged from the Navy unfit as a CPO Stoker in 1946.
In 1952 Alfred Floyd emigrated to Australia with his wife Dorothy as
"ten pound Poms" taking advantage of the assisted passage scheme which
brought so many new immigrants to Australia, the land of
opportunity, in the post war years.
He was given a house in Sunshine, a suburb of Melbourne, but had no
qualifications and started as a boiler makers mate on the Victoria
State railways. After matriculating from Melbourne High he obtained a
clerical job and was soon running the newly established data
processing section and went on to work in the Education Office and
started the railway police service. He continued his studies and
graduated from Monash University and after retirement in 1980 went on
to organise and run courses for the University of the Third Age.
Alf Floyd on his motor bike at the Christmas party of the Upwey Branch of the Returned Serevicemen's League (RSL)
Alf Floyd with his family outside his home at Tecoma, Melbourne, in 2006 Courtesy of John Leigh of the RSL's Running Rabbit Military Museum
In 1999 Alf and Dorothy were interviewed for three hours as part of a
programme to record the experience of the postwar immigrants who
settled in Australia under the assisted passage scheme. The six half hour audio cassettes in the National Library of Australia can be listened to online. They include more
about Dorothy than the RSL interview (in which she hardly said a word)
but only brief fragmentary details of Alfred's wartime service in the
Navy. Dorothy Floyd was 82 when she died 2004 but Alfred Floyd lived another eight years and died on 11 October 2012 aged 96.
Bill Riseborough used to say
"all stokers became seagulls when they died..."
interested in a social history of the engineering branch of the Royal
Navy and more particularly of stokers will find this thesis worth reading It is available as a free download from the University of Exeter ‘Stokers-the lowest of the low?' A Social History of Royal Navy Stokers 1850–1950