1939 the commanding officers of Royal Navy warships were all regular
Navy but the wardroom contained a mix of RN, RNVR and RNR officers.
Derek Tolfree went to HMS Worcester, the Merchant Navy's equivalent of Dartmouth, joined HMS Westminister
as an RNR MIdshipman and expressed the widely held view that "In the RNR
we were sailors trying to be gentleman and in the RNVR they were
gentlemen trying to be sailors". Later in the war both RNVR and RNR
officers were given command of their own ships.
Carrington Ouvry RN (1904-89) was CO from December 1939 to August
1942 and earned Westminster the title of "E-boat Killer No 1" after an
action on 12 October 1941 in defence of Convoy FN.31.
His previous ship, the minesweeper, HMS Mastiff,
had been blown up in the Thames estuary on the 18 November 1939 while
attempting to locate and retrieve one of the new magnetic mines which
threatened to close the Thames to shipping.
Derek Tolfree, a young Midshipman who joined Westminster in December 1942, described the eccentric first lieutenant:
One early 1st Lt always wore a wing collar, had only 3 buttons on one
side of his reefer, kept a monkey on board and went to dances at the
North British Hotel, Edinburgh, where he would eventually leap onto a
table and eat his wine glass, complaining bitterly of indigestion when
we next went to sea. He also insisted on everyone having a nickname and
no one was allowed to be addressed by their proper title. Hence we had
“Crackers”, “Brickwork”, “Teddy”, “Rough Tough”, “Pull Through” (me),
“Dizzy”, “Titus”, “Guff” and “The Gooner”.
The most senior lieutenant on Westminster in 1941 was John Harmer.
It may be no coincidence that he was treated for abdominal problems. A
taste for crunching up glass was it seems not uncommon in the Navy.
Frank Donald told me of a submariner who was approached at a reception
by the Mayor with a glass nibbled all round and said "look what one of
your officers has done". The CO replied "what fools my officers are to
leave the best bit" and swallowed the stem. True or false such stories
do reveal another aspect to life in the Royal Navy.
John Harmer came from an eccentric family. He was the younger brother of Lt. Richard J.A. Hamer (1911-60),
The South Wales Borderers, who was arrested in his army camp and
interned for sympathy with the British Union of Fascists (and
subsequently sued the Home Secretary for damages) and son of Lt.Col. Frederick Alexander Hamer, RM (1886-1972) who was dismissed the service by sentence of a general court martial on 21 October 1941. The reputation of Lt John Anthony Hodnet Hamer RN (1916-77) was not damaged and he briefly succeeded Lt.Cdr. Aymé Arthur Carrington Ouvry as CO before becoming CO of HMS Worcester.
Lt.Cdr. Harold Godfrey Bowerman, DSC, RN was CO when Derek Tolfree joined as Midshipman. He was a former submariner who was in command of HMS Oxley when she was sunk by HMS Tritonoff
Norway on the 10 September 1939. Bowerman and a lookout on the conning
tower were the only ones saved. This was the first British warship to
be sunk in the war. In May 1940 he was the CO of HMS Walpole, a sister ship to Westminster,
which took three men to Ijmuiden, the gateway to Amsterdam, on the 12
May to snatch industrial diamonds from the Netherlands before they
could be seized by German forces. This secret operation was the subject
of a book, Adventure in DIamonds
by David Walker (Norton, 1955) and a British film, "Operation
Amsterdam", starring Peter Finch, Eva Bartok and Tony Britton made in
1959. Bowerman commanded HMS Douglas and HMS Leamington before being made CO of Westminster in August 1942.
Bowerman was greatly respected but was very short and stood on a box when on the bridge and was known as "Stumpy". HIs "No 1", Lt A.R.H. Tedford RNVR,
was popular in the wardroom and with the men but did not get on well
with his CO. Eric Brett, the Wardroom Steward, whose job it was to look
after Bowerman and Tedford, said Bowerman would have preferred his
other lieutenant, an RNR, as his No 1. He thought RNVR Officers were "Saturday night sailors". Lt Tedford died in a tragic accident when he fell overboard from HMS Uraniain Sydney harbour and drowned in April 1946. He was only 26.
Eric Brett (left) was not yet 16 when he joined the Navy. He wanted to be a
Boy Telegraphist but the Navy decided he was too young but could become
a Boy Steward. He joined Westminster
in 1943 and slept in the Tiller Flat at the stern and ate with PO
Officers' Steward Tom Gilham from Gosport in the Officers' Pantry. The CO spent most of his time in the Sea Cabin beneath the bridge and was not often seen in the Wardroom. Eric
took his food from the Officers' Galley at the stern to his cabin using
the line strung the length of the deck in heavy weather. He brought
soup and sandwiches to the bridge for the Officer of the Watch.
had lots of stories to tell about the "boys in the wardroom" who had as
much fun as the boys on the mess decks at the bow. On a run ashore at
the end of a convoy they stole the small ornamental brass cannon
outside the residence of the Captain of the naval dockyard at
Sheerness, took it back to the Westminster and blew it up while attempting to fire a salvo.
Eric also remembered games of rugger (without a ball) in the wardroom
which left it a wreck. The Wardroom was quite cosy with a coal fire to
keep it warm in winter which was only lit in harbour. Whenever Westminster
left harbour Glen Miller's "American Patrol" was played over the Tannoy
but music was never played at sea to avoid giving away their position,
messages being passed by the Bosun's Mate using his call. Eric Brett's action station was in the aft
magazine where he loaded the 4-inch shells into a "cruet", four at a
time, to be hauled up on deck to the Gun Crew. The Guns were mainly a
defence against aircraft and mostly used HEHA (High Explosive, High Angle
shells) instead of High Explosive Armour Piercing Shells (HESAP).
Lt. John Edwin Dyer, DSC, RN
succeeded Bowerman as CO. Derek Tolfree thought "Johnny Dyer was a
wonderful guy". He joined as a lieutenant and had been a senior officer
of coastal forces and First Lt on Samaurez in the Scharnhorst action where he won his DSC.