HMS Watchman Courtesy of W & L Queen St Portsmouth
HMS Watchman was built
on the Clyde by John Brown & Company. She was completed on 26
January 1918 and commissioned the same day. She spent the remaining
months of the war with the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow. In March 1919
Watchman and her sister ship Velox
visited Liverpool and made a five day visit to Preston (in appreciation
of the role of Vegetable Products Committee in providing fresh fruit
and vegetables to the Navy during the war) and were visited by 50,000
people. Watchman took part in the Baltic Campaign as described by Midshipman Lampden in his Journal.
Lt Cdr William E.B. Magee RN DSO distinguished himself in 1920 and was
awarded the DSO. In 1921 she was part of the escort for King George V
when he visited Jersey in the Royal Yacht and then patrolled the coast
of Ireland during the Civil War. Like many of her sister ships she was
later put in Reserve.
She came out of Reserve on the outbreak of war and from September 1939 to July 1940 was
based at Gibraltar on anti-contraband duties and escorting
convoys to Liverpool. After the fall of France she was ordered to
Casablanca to shadow the French battleship Jean Bart should she leave harbour in case she was seized by the Germans. On the 26 June Watchman
and the 13th Destroyer Flotilla became part of the newly formed Force H
at Gibraltar but in July she was transferred back to Britain.
In September 1940 she joined the 6th Escort Group at Liverpool until
July 1941 when she transferred to the 8th Escort Group at Londonderry. In November 1941 she was adopted by Brierley Hill in Staffordshire after a successful Warship Week National Savings campaign. In April
1942 she became part of the 1st Escort Group and in July Lt H.C. Kennedy RNVR better known in later life as the television personality Ludovic Kennedy joined her at Londonderry. This period escorting Atlantic convoys is described by Ken Flemming the son of AB Sydney Flemming who stood watch with Kennedy. Watchman escorted Atlantic convoys from September 1940 until early in
1943 when she entered Brocklebank Dock in Liverpool for conversion to a Long
Range Escort (LRE).
After conversion she rejoined the 1st Escort Group at Liverpool and Sub Lt Dennis Foster described events on the website of HMS Wanderer. On the 24 December the Group Leader, HMS Hurricane (Cdr Westmacott), was torpedoed and had to be sunk by Watchman as described below by Watchman's temporary CO, Lt Cdr John Manners RN. Yeoman of Signals, Ralph Hill, described some of the characters serving in Watchman on the BBC's Peoples War website.
Continue this brief description of the
the service of HMS Watchman from launch to scrapping in which links to
subordinate stories can be inserted as required
NORTH SEA 1940-44 - ENGLISH CHANNEL 1943 - ATLANTIC 1944
Former Full Members of the V & W Destroyer Assoociation
G. Barton (London), J. Lowe (Stoke on Trent), T.F. Rogers (Newport, Gwent) Please get in touch if you have a family member who served in HMS Watchman
Sydney Flemming (1919 – 2001) AB, SSX 20676 by Kenneth Flemming
My father joined HMS Watchman from HMS Drake, the naval barracks at Devonport, Plymouth, on 15 July 1942. Lt Cdr John Malcolm Rodgers DSC RN
(1901 – 1971) had taken command ten days earlier on 4 July 1942.
Lt Ludovic H. C. Kennedy RNVR (1919 – 2009), later Sir Ludovic, television
presenter and interviewer, liberal politician, author and naval
historian joined as her gunnery and watchkeeping officer on 30 June
1942, three days before her commanding officer.
Kennedy’s book, Nelson’s Band of Brothers
(1951) contains an inscription to
the commanding officers with a list of the ships in which he served.
AB Sydney Flemming was surprised on
being told about the connection, he obviously only remembered a Lt
Kennedy. They were a similar age, Kennedy was nine months younger, but
by the age of 23 both men had seen a notable amount of action
in less than 3 years of war.
Sydney Flemming joined the navy 28 April 1937 at 18. Initial training
was completed in HMS Cornwall (sunk 5 April 1942 in the Indian Ocean by
Japanese dive bombers) and the destroyer HMS Basilisk (sunk by dive
bombers at Dunkirk 1 June 1940). He joined HMS Dragonfly, the first of five Locust Class river gunboat, on the River Yangtze in China on 28 April 1939.
AB Sydney Flemming and HMS Dragonfly
‘From the Yangtse River Gunboats Only one in ten returned When the Little Ships Flotilla Off Malaya redly burned The jungled isles fell silent And the heaving water sighed As the women and the children And the sailors rudely died.’
The Little Ships Flotilla, Edwin Varley.
When war was declared in September the situation on the China Station became confused and the
Yangtze flotilla was recalled to Hong Kong. He was finally drafted to
HMS Scout, an S Class destroyer, on 1 November 1941. Seven weeks later the Japanese
attacked the colony, 18 December 1941. He says of the period “the occupation of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937 during
the Sino-Japanese War was intimidating but we never expected to go to war with them”.
Scout lay in drydock during the attack being hurriedly undocked by her
ship’s company who flooded the dock with the help of the European dock
staff after the Chinese work force failed to turn up when the first air
raids began. They left behind the officers steward, the
Chinese mess boys and the wife and daughter of her Executive Officer
Lt Christopher Briggs RNR who my father thought did not survive. Scout
left the dockyard at about 1830 that same day in company with HMS
Thanet for Singapore. I later found that Christopher Briggs wife and daughter
survived their ordeal.
On reaching Singapore Scout was used in defence of that colony until
Singapore itself was overrun. She escaped again, thanks to her engine
room staff who effectively saved the ship by repairing her
boiler brickwork allowing her to raise steam. As she left her berth
shortly after completing repairs a Japanese advance party ran along the
quayside in an attempt to board. The ship was bombed every day: “if they had been dive bombers we would not have survived”. On
the bridge as a lookout he passed messages to her captain, Lt Cdr H
Lambton RN, when the planes attacked: “bomb doors opened” - and
finally - “bombs gone”.
The Dutch Vice Admiral C E L Helfrich RNLN gave orders for her escape via the Sunda Strait between the
Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra which connects the Java Sea to the
Indian Ocean. She escaped two hours before the Battle of the Java Sea in which every
allied ship was sunk with very few survivors. Scout
entered the port of Padang, Sumatra, to refuel. She lost no time in leaving; fully laden with hundreds of
refugees who scrambled and fought to get on
board to escape the Japanese, she headed for the
open sea. The exhausted ship's
company found no relief from the constant watch keeping while also
continually being closed up at action stations. All the
space and what little provisions they had remaining were given over to
their new passengers. Deliriously happy, clapping, waving and
cheering, the civilians almost hysteric with relief, they reached
safety on 5th March 1942.
Kennedy gained his experence serving for two years in HMS Tartar,
a Tribal-class destroyer deployed to defend the Atlantic convoys.
It is recorded that Tartar
was in the action to sink the Bismark but although she was present during the chase shetook no part in the battle except as a spectator. The destroyers in the final action at her sinking on
27 May 1941 were HMS Cossack(Captain Philip Vian RN), HMS Maori, HMS Sikh, HMS Zulu and the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun.
Tarter saw Bismark ablaze and dead in the water after the battle and her ship's company were somewhat relieved they had been spared the battle
itself. Tartar was very low on fuel and left just before Bismark sank.
The day after the sinking on
28 May she was returning to Scapa Flow with HMS Mashona a Tribal-class
destroyer when they came under heavy air attack west of Ireland. It is
estimated that 50 aircraft took part in the attacks over 13 hours. Mashona was hit and badly damaged, eventually capsizing, in
return Tartar shot down one of the attacking aircraft and rescued 14
officers and 215 ratings, transporting them to Greenock. They were under heavy and sustained air attacks while deployed
for Atlantic convoy defence. In January and February 1942 they escorted Russian convoys.
Personalty and upbringing
While serving as officer of the day in HMS Tartar he was summoned by the captain, Commander R.T. White RN DSO who told him:
"I was on deck a little while ago and the cat's
gone adrift". Since the fleet was at battle stations, Kennedy wondered
about his commander's mental stability, "Should I perhaps
arrest him?" Having decided
against, he eventually found the ship's cat lying on a coil of rope.
"Are you trying to make a fool of me Kennedy?" the captain demanded as
he reported back. "No, No, you bloody idiot. The catamaran. Bugger the
cat." Obituary, The Telegraph
To find out more about the use of CATs to counter the threat from acoustic torpedoes, GNATs, see GNATs versus CATs.
His early years were blighted by
his relationship with his mother, a "hearty, beefy tweedy
sergeant-major of a woman", who treated her only son with cold contempt
and stern discipline. "She was an ogre. I hated her” His father was the only "true and
good" thing in his life. He had been a naval captain during the First
World War, and in 1921 had narrowly averted a mutiny by Royal Fleet
Reservists by negotiating off his own bat with the disaffected men, an
act for which he was court-martialled and forced out of the navy. The
naval authorities seemed to acknowledge the injustice when in 1938,
aged 60, he was recalled for active service and given command of the
Rawalpindi, a P&O liner inadequately converted into a
battlecruiser. A few months into the war in 1939, the Rawalpindi was
sunk by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.
Ludovic Kennedy heard about the
sinking on the BBC nine o'clock news bulletin and immediately rang the
War Office to find out about his father. "The Captain? No I'm afraid
he's gone," he was told. Bitter grief mixed with an unutterable sense
of pride proved an emotionally shattering combination.
It was during the war that he
experienced his first symptoms of the anxiety neurosis that would
afflict him with insomnia, acute stomach pains and cold sweats for the
next 20 years. He noticed that these symptoms manifested themselves
whenever he went on shore but disappeared when he returned to sea.
For the wartime service record of Lt Ludovic H.C. Kennedy RNVR see his entry on Unithistories.com. For more details of his wartime service read his books. Sub-Lieutenant: A Personal Record of War at Sea (Batsford, 1942) was subject to wartime censorship but provides a vivid contemporary account of his time in HMS Tartar. Pursuit: the chase and sinking of the Bismarck (Viking, 1974) and Menace the life and death of the Tirpitz (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1979) are more naval histories than personal accounts. On My Way To The Club, The Autobiography Of Ludoviv Kennedy (1989) contains an illuminating account of his time as a Watch Keeping Officer in HMS Watchman.
The Escort Groups
During 1941 Western Approaches Command formed eight escort groups.
These typically comprised four to eight ships, under the command of an
RN officer, usually a Commander or Lieutenant Commander. By operating
together under a single leader, groups were able to develop group
tactics and practice their use; with the issue of a single short
command the various ships of the group, often out of sight of each
other, could be relied upon to act in a coordinated fashion providing
protection for trade convoys.
Escort groups were a World War II
tactical innovation in anti-submarine warfare by the Royal Navy to
combat the threat of the Kriegsmarine's "wolfpack" tactics, rigorously
trained in anti-submarine tactics to use teamwork emphasizing the
unique sensors, weapons, speed and turning radius of each ship. The
development of these 'escort groups' proved an effective means of
defending shipping convoys through the Battle of the Atlantic.
In practice, escort group cohesion was impaired by frequent changes of
escort personnel and transferring ships between groups. Personnel
shuffling was inevitable as trained crewmen with combat experience were
promoted and transferred to the expanding fleet of new ships. Shuffling
of ships from one escort group to another was often necessary to
maintain escort group strength by replacing ships temporarily disabled
by battle damage or the frequent machinery breakdowns of older
warships. In 1941 the 8th Escort Group was formed from the following ships. HMS Malcolm, was the Admiralty type flotilla leader, HMS Watchman an old V & W, two Town-class destroyers, HMS Beverley
and HMS Newmarket, two S-class destroyers, HMS Sardonyx and HMS
Scimitar, and the Flower-class corvettes, HMS Arabis, Dahlia, Monkshood,
Petunia, Violet and Verbena. The 8th Escort Group was based at Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Lt Derek Lawson RNVR took some fine photographs while serving with the 8th Escort Group at Londonderry in HMS Beverley. In 1944 he become the first RNVR CO of HMS Venomous. Watchman
continued operations with the 8th Escort Group until April 1942, when
she transferred to the 1st Escort Group with the Havant class
Destroyer HMS Hurricane, the ex-American lend lease destroyer HMS Rockingham, and the Flower class corvettes Anchusa, Borage, Dahlia, Meadowsweet, Monkshood, and Wallflower.
Force Eight in the Galley AB John Whitehouse HMS Watchman off Iceland 1941. He doesn’t wear a tall hat; He wasn’t trained in France, The chef in this destroyer, Became a chef by chance. Tall, pale-faced, a lonely lad, We seldon see him smile, For his job is the hardest, Of any in the pile. His range is fixed to the ship, of course; But that’s not the only thing – Like now, at sea his language, Would make the devil sing. Cauldrons and spud nets and bags holding peas, Straight bakes and hashes all slde with such ease, The tally for Five mess has flopped into Three; He can’t know whats what, in this Icelandic sea. Yet in spite of all this, He has only one moan, “You seasick sods won’t eat it, So I’ll scoff the lot ------- Alone.”
Serving together in HMS Watchman
AB Sydney Flemming and Lt Ludovic H.C. Kennedy RNVR served together in HMS Watchman
from July 1942 to May 1943 as part of the 1st Escort Group
escorting Atlantic convoys from its base at Londonderry. AB
Sydney Flemming lived in
the Seamen's Mess below deck in the foecasle and Lt Kennedy in the
officers quarters on the quarterdeck at the stern but they came to know
each other while sharing watch at sea, Kennedy as the Officer of the
Watch and Flemming as the lookout.
Two men of widely differing backgrounds and education came to rely on
each others experience gained over almost three years of
constant watchkeeping duties, action and remorseless weather on different stations and in different ships. On seeing
the photograps of Watchman for the first time in 1986 Ludovic Kennedy
said of them; “They reminded me of some very nasty Atlantic crossings”.
HMS Rockingham photographed from Watchman by AB Sydney Flemming Courtesy of Ken Flemming
Ludovic Kennedy described this period in his autobiography On My Way To The Club:
a month or so the group would slip down the River Foyle, watched from
the left bank by the representatives of the German ambassador in Dublin
who lost no time in informing Berlin of our departure. At sea we would
join with the next onward bound convoy from the Clyde or Liverpool and
take station around it. The Atlantic crossing took eight to ten days
depending on the weather and the speed of the slowest ship; and having
handed over the convoy to a Canadian group off the south west of
Newfoundland, we entered Argentia Bay to rest and repair damage
alongside an American depotship. After two or three days there, we
would sail round to St John’s, the capital, for shopping and a night
ashore, then back with the next eastbound convoy to Londonderry. This
routine never varied.
When we sailed with our first
convoy the Battle of the Atlantic was at its height. In June 
U-boats had sunk 144 ships, in July 96, in August 108. Now with no less
than forty-two U-boats on station between Greenland and the Azores,
Admiral Donitz was about to launch a new offensive. We guessed it would
be only a matter of days before we were in action.
Astonishingly we had an uneventful
passage, both on the outward and homeward legs. For a total of eighteen
days we zig-zagged to and fro across the front of the two convoys,
lookouts straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of a conning-tower or
periscope. But none came. Convoys ahead and astern of us were mauled,
some savagely, but we remained inviolate.
Back in Londonderry we thought, oh
well, we’ll buy it next time, but amazingly next time was the same as
the last, and so were all the future times. For as the months went by
and the shipping losses again mounted (94 in October, 119 in November)
and we heard on the radio the Admiralty warning convoys that U-boats
were gathering to attack them, and later their escorts reporting ships
burning and sinking, our convoys remained untouchable as pariahs. We came to assume every trip would be a peaceful one; and - the weather apart - every trip was."
The ship’s low morale was very low,
especially in the wardroom: "Our bete noire was the first lieutenant,
disliked equally by the wardroom and lower deck. A peacetime RNVR
officer, he was as petty-minded and obsessed with detail as his
background of a solicitor’s office in a small town in Wales might have
led one to expect, and we all resented the high-handed, often petulant
way he addressed the ship’s company.
Before leaving Newfoundland with
the homeward bound convoy, we always spent a night in St John’s. On
Christmas Day – the first I had spent ashore for three years – I
received an invitation to a lunch party at Government House and then
sailed that afternoon."
AB Sydney Flemming and his shipmates on the lower deck celebrated their
Christmas rather differently - see below - before leaving Newfoundland
that afternoon to escort a homebound convoy.
Christmas Day at St John's, Newfoundland; AB Sydney Flemming is
third from left (on left) and centre (on right) They left St John's that afternoon to escort a returning convoy All photographs are courtesy of Kenneth Flemming
During the period August 1942 to
March 1943 Watchman escorted 13 convoys to Sydney and Halifax in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and ports on the east coast of the United States including New York and Boston. Often, she
would leave the convoy after a week or less or sometimes staying with
them but then always turning around and joining the homeward bound ones
to escort them back. Very monotonous duties. By the end of 1942 Ludovic
Kennedy says he was beginning to feel he had had enough of Watchman.
There was no rest for Watchman
from escort duties when not deployed or in refit; her ships company
were contantly exercising with “friendly” submarines off Lough Foyle,
the estuary of the River Foyle, on the north coast of Ireland. The
lough is about 16 miles long and varies in breadth from 1 to 10 miles.
A shallow coastal embayment Lough Foyle swells at the mouth of the
River Foyle and meets the North Atlantic Ocean. It receives most of its
water from the Rivers Foyle, Faughan and Roe. It has a maximum depth of
50 feet and an average depth of 17 feet. While 20 percent of its area
is in fact intertidal mudflats. From 3 August 1942 until January 1943 Watchman
conducted A/S exercises off Lough Foyle with HM Submarine H 32 & H
34 both being laid down at a similar time as Watchman in
Watchman operated with her new
group on North Atlantic convoy operations until August 1942, when she
had a special assignment to carry out trials of the prototype Radar
Plan Display (PPI), later known as Outfit JE. Ludovic Kennedy describes
the impact it made:
had been supplied with one brand new and quite revolutionary piece of
equipment, a circular radar scan called PPI which we set up in the
charthouse. Until recently primitive radar antennae had been fixed in
positions pointing only in the direction of ahead, and any contacts
gained were passed orally by the radar operator. But the antenna that
fed the PPI revolved on its own axis and all contacts made were
translated into luminous blobs or lines on the screen which were
calibrated in yards or miles from the centre. This was the fore runner
of what is in common use today in every modern ship, aircraft and
aircraft control tower in the world; but ours was the first to be
installed operationally. When with a convoy, the scan showed us the
exact positions of all the ships in it and their relationship to us and
each other; and, in inland waters, the delineation of the coastline
with it bays and promontories, a luminous replica of the chart. All
this is old hat now; but to us then, it was breath-taking."
It was during one of these convoys that Watchman
made a positive contact with a U-boat and the order was given by her
commanding officer Lt Cdr Rodgers to fire depth charges which would
probably have made a kill. Unfortunately they failed to fire due to a
problem with the firing pistol. Her commanding officer flew into a rage
remembered years later by AB Flemming who he blamed saying, “he would
have him before him at defaulters if he missed the U boat”. He
rescinded the remark which had been made over the ships intercom system
very shortly after, acknowledging “it had not been his fault”.
After continuing her convoy defence duties in the early months of 1943, Watchman
entered a commercial shipyard at Liverpool to undergo conversion into a
Long-Range Escort. She underwent post-conversion acceptance trials and
pre-deployment work-ups in August 1943 before rejoining the 1st Escort
Group to defend convoys steaming between the United Kingdom and
Lt Ludovic Kennedy and Able seaman Sydney Flemming left her
at this time. In May 1944 AB Sydney Flemming joined HMS Wessex which with her sister ship HMS Whelp
commanded by Prince Philip, Patron of the V & W Destroyer
Association, was serving with the Americans in the British Pacific
Fleet where they were subject to many Kamikaze attacks. He left the
Navy in February 1946 but was recalled for the war in Korea from 1951-2.
Lt Cdr John E. Manners RN
Lt Cdr John Manners RN had been appointed CO of HMS Viceroy while she was undergoing a refit at Jarrow on the Tyne but in December 1943 he took over as temporary CO of HMS Watchman for six weeks while she was based at Londonderry escorting Atlantic convoys when her CO, Lt.Cdr. George H.D. Williams, RN was taken ill.
"After a week or two on
arrival on board I was surprisingly and unexpectedly told to report to
Londonderry in Ireland as soon as possible. On reaching there I was
told to command the Watchman and we sailed almost at once. Her captain
had gone ill and they wanted someone with experience to take his place
The Watchman was built in
1917 and was made into a ‘long legger’ by removing her foremost boiler
and funnel and replacing it with a fuel tank enabling her to have a
longer endurance for convoy work in the north Atlantic. The dirty pink
‘elephants breath’ camouflage had gone out of fashion and after her refit as a Long Range Escort (LRE) Watchmanwas given a new form of camouflage in shades of light
grey, white and light blue taken from a book of designs (on left).
We formed part
of the 1st Escort Group which attached itself to an outward bound convoy and
transferred to an incoming one, staying at sea for a fortnight or so. On return from the first
trip I had been expecting to leave but was ordered out to sea
immediately after re-fuelling. The U-boats had recently been fitted
with acoustic torpedoes called ‘gnats’ which were designed to home into
the propellers of an attacking craft. One such torpedo had struck
the destroyer Hurricane [on 24 December 1943]. We arrived at the scene and there she
was stationary and looking undamaged. However, her propellers and
rudder had been irreparably damaged and she was a thousand miles or so
from land, there was no option but to sink her as towing that distance
was out of the question. Anyhow, by this time with new ships
being commissioned so frequently a single destroyer was less valuable,
her trained crew being more so.
We encountered some nasty
rough weather and our Asdic dome, which was in its lowered position,
was broken off necessitated us going into dry dock to have a
replacement fitted. On the way back to port we passed an outward-bound
Atlantic convoy and the leading merchant ship signalled to us asking
our name. It turned out that it was from my father who was
commodore of the convoy. I altered course and drew up alongside
and spoke to him on the loud hailer. He must have found out in
Liverpool that I was in Watchman."
On 24 December 1943, Hurricane (Cdr. Charles Edward Eustace Paterson, RN) was hit by an acoustic T5
torpedo fired by the German submarine U-415
in mid Atlantic at 45°10′- N 22°05′W.45.167°N 22.083°W whilst escorting
Convoy OS 62/KMS 36. The torpedo homed in on the noise from the ship's
propeller and blew off 30 feet of her stern. The explosion killed three
and wounded nine and rendered her unable to move. She remained afloat
after heavy gear was jettisoned, but had to be sunk on Christmas Day by a
torpedo from Watchman after HMS Glenarm (K 258) a River Class Frigate had taken off her crew.
John Manners was 105 and the oldest
living CO of a wartime destroyer when he died on 7 March 2020
You can read more about his wartime
service in destroyers on the website of HMS Viceroy.
The adoption of HMS Watchman by Brierley Hill in Staffordshire
22-29 November 1941 Brierley Hill raised £227,950 to adopt HMS Watchman
Birmingham Mail, 15 November
1941 – Mr. Arthur Greenwood launched Brierley Hills Warship Week appeal
at a luncheon at the Town Hall today. The object is to raise
£210,000, the cost of a hull of a destroyer. If successful the
town will adopt HMS Watchman. Evening Despatch,
21 September 1943 – Officers and men of HMS Watchman, the ship adopted
by Brierley Hill, have presented to the town the white ensign which the
ship has flown in many exiting incidents of the seven seas. This
is in acknowledgement of gifts to the ship from the special comforts
fund Brierley Hill has inaugurated. Birmingham Daily Gazette,
20 January 1948 – Whether Brierley Hill Councillors will in future be
called in order by the sharp clang of a ship’s bell remains in
doubt. When informed that HMS Watchman adopted by Brierley Hill
during the war was out of commission, it was decided to ask the
Admiralty for the custody of the ship’s bell. At last night’s
meeting of the council members were informed that it is ‘not lawful for
naval stores to be made the subject of free gifts. Watch-bells of
ships cannot be disposed of until their availability for sale has been
published in Fleet Orders.’ If and when this happens the council
can make application.