Click on the links within this brief
outline for first hand accounts by the men who served on HMS Woolston and for a more detailed chronolgy see www.naval-history.net
Woolston was one of six Thornycroft W-Class destroyer built at Thorneycroft's Woolston
shipyard on the opposite side of the River Itchen from Southampton. She
was launched in January 1918 and named after the shipyard where she was built. The Woolston made news when she entered Scapa Flow with Harry Hawker and Cdr Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve after their unsuccessful attempt to fly across the Atlantic in May 1919. In 1939 she
was converted to a WAIR type Anti-Aircraft (AA) escort (her pennant
number changed to L49) and spent most of 1939 - 42
escorting east coast convoys in the North Sea. Her first wartime CO, Lt
Cdr W.J. Phipps RN, described this period in his diary (Imperial War Museum, Docs.7510) and a CW Candidate, Samuel Gorley Putt, described life as a rating on the lower deck of HMS "Tiddley" (Woolston) in Men Dressed as Seamen (1943). In March 1941 Woolston
was transferred to Western Approaches Command at Londonderry as an
Atlantic escort but returned to Rosyth Command escorting east coast
convoys in November 1941. During National Warships Week in February
Cheshire town of Congleton adopted HMS Woolston
after raising £220,000, the cost of building the
hull of a destroyer. In March she was
part of the escort for Arctic Convoy PQ.12 and returning Convoy PQ.8.
In June and July of 1943 she escorted convoys to Gibraltar and the
invasion beaches on Sicily, Operation Husky.
From 1944-5 she resumed her service as an escort for east coast convoys
and the war artist, Charles E. Turner,
spent some on HMS Woolston
during this period. At the end of the war she made two trips to Bergen, Norway, Operation Conan (part of Operation
Apostle) to accept the surrender of German naval forces. HMS Woolston was paid-off and reduced
to Reserve status after VJ Day and broken up in 1947.
|Lt Cdr Donal Scott McGrath RN (Sept 1926 - 1927)
Lt.Cdr. Walter John Phipps, RN (5 Sep 1939 - 24 Apr 1941)
Lt.Cdr. Kenneth Walter Michell, RN (24 Apr 1941 - Sep 1942)
|Lt. Frederick William Hawkins, RN (Sep 1942 - Oct
Lt. Jack Broughton Cox, RN (Oct 1943 - May 1945)
Lt. John Valentine ("Jack") Brothers, RN (May 1945 - mid 1945)
short list of officers who served on HMS Woolston during World War II all
have entries on the unithistories.com web site.
Further names from the Navy List will be added later.
|Lt. A.H.G. Butler, RNVR (11 May 1943 - April
Lt Ian N.D. Cox, RN (31 July - Dec 1941)
S.Lt John P.O. Evans, RNVR (15 September 1939 - Dec 1941)
A. Hugo E. Hood, RN (11 Sept - Oct 1942)
|Lt(E) C.A. Maxwell, RN (1942/3?)
Lt. Herbert A. Taylor, RN (4 March 1943 - Dec 1943)
Lt. Basil C.Ward RN (9 Sept 1939 - 13 August 1941)
Lt. Roderick B. Whatley, RN (27 March 1942 - Feb 1943)
Crossing the Atlantic by Air
Everybody knows that John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919 in a modified First World War Vickers Vimy bomber and the Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill, presented them with the Daily Mail prize for the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by aeroplane in "less than 72 consecutive hours".
But they were so nearly beaten by the Australian pilot, Harry Hawker (on left), and his navigator, Lt Cdr Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve RN (on right), who set off from Newfoundland on 18 May 1919 in their Sopwith biplane named Atlantic but had to ditch in the Atlantic after fourteen hours. Thy were rescued by the Danish ship, Mary, which had no wireless to report their rescue and it was assumed they died when their plane crashed in the sea.
HMS Woolston, the Navy's newest destroyer, had "short legs" and never crossed the Atlantic but she was in the area and had wireless communication. The Mary transferred the brave aviators to the Woolston who reported their rescue and took them to Scapa Flow. The Illustrated London News carried the news to their readers in their issue of the 31 May:
"The steamer Mary which rescued Mr Hawker and Commander Mackenzie-Grieve RN, was intercepted on May 25th off Loch Erribol by the destroyer Woolston which conveyed them to the fleet at Scapa Flow, where they spent the night on board HMS Revenge as the guests of Admiral Freemantle."
The men on HMS Woolston tell their stories
Frank WittonFrancis Charles Witton (on left in 1942) was born in St Albans on 16 December 1922 and still lives there at the age of 95. His father worked as a coachman for a retired judge in the Indian Service who paid for Frank to attend a school ran by two spinster sisters in Holywell Hill. Frank joined Handley Page at Radlet, a reserved occupation, but they released him to join the Royal Navy. After training at HMS Duke in Worcestershire as a stoker he was posted from HMS Pembroke at Chatham to his first ship, HMS Woolston, in February 1942. Woolston was at sea and they stayed aboard HMS Vortigern at Rosyth until she returned to port. HMS Vortigern was sunk in March 1942 and only twelve men were saved. HMS Woolston joined the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow and escorted Arctic Convoy PQ.12 to Archangel and Frank described the terrifying conditions in appalling weather without any winter clothing. The bad weather kept the U-Boats away. There was no time to go ashore, they left for Scapa Flow with the capital ships within 24 hours. HMS Woolston became an escort for east coast convoys from Rosyth to Sheerness. Frank was on Woolston when she escorted the troop ships from Malta to Sicily. Woolston escorted a convoy from Tripoli and Bone to Malta and then returned to Plymouth, low on fuel (HMS Valorous had to be towed). Fuel was stored in the fresh water tanks to extend their range. HMS Woolston was a happy ship. Lt Hawkins, the CO at Sicily in 1943 was a bit of a tartar but Jack Broughton was "a smashing bloke" and "all his officers were really good". In May 1945 Woolston went to Norway to accept the surrender of the U-Boats at Bergen. Admiral Otto von Schrader was in command of the U-Boats and came aboard to surrender to Captain B D Nicholson RN, NOIC Bergen, and the Norwegian naval commander. Dr Mathews, a future Dean of St Albans Cathedral, was Padre on HMS Norfolk which arrived at Bergen the next day spoke at the service in the Church. Frank joined HMS Suffolk and was sent to Melbourne, Australia, but when Japan surrendered returned to Britain. Frank was demobbed in 1946, married and lived in Edinburgh for a few months before returning to St Albans where he worked as a boiler man at Roses Lime Juice in Grosvenor Road for 35 years.
Frank Witton at his home in St Albans in 2013 holding a print of a painting of HMS Woolston by Charles E. Turner who spent some time on Woolston
Photographed by Bill Forster
Cod, dried biscuits and rum for Christmas Dinner on the stokers' Mess Deck, HMS Woolston, in 1942
The CO ordered two depth charges to be dropped and they lowered a boat to collect the cod covering the sea
Neil O'Rouke from Glasgow is centre nearest the camera, Bill Perry holds a binnacle lamp and Jack Boore and "Spider" Kelly are seated holding the keg of rum
Also in the photograph are "Smokey" Meadows and Ronnie Barnes
Courtesy of Frank Witton
The Coxon presents a silver teapot as a wedding gift to First Lieutenant Bingham on HMS Woolston
Bill Perry, Stoker, is second left and "Smokey" Meadows is on Lt Bingham's left
Courtesy of Frank Witton
The dinghy of an allied airman rescued by HMS Woolston
Courtesy of Frank Witton
Bill Forster recorded an interview with
Frank Witton at his home in St Albans in 2013
You can click on the link to listen to Frank describe his wartime service on HMS Woolston
The recording is on the website of the Imperial War Museum
Jack Boore tells his story on the BBC Peoples War web site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/08/a2070208.shtml
spent my nineteenth birthday square bashing, not a very good day! Six
later came reality, posted to Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham. My
introduction to HMS Pembroke
came as a shock, thousands of sailors in barracks and on ships in the
dockyard, whistles blowing if you happened to be on the wrong side of
road, i.e. officers only area, yelling orders and doubling across
massive parade ground, fire fighting school, gas school, working in
boiler or engine rooms that were on the ships in dockyard and many more
tasks I never dreamed of.
this chaotic routine I was posted to a mine sweeper at
Grimsby. The boat was in the midst of a refit, pipes wires and hoses
cluttered the decks, my vision of a sleek modern destroyer or cruiser
was shattered, the ship was filthy, so, as you can imagine I was not a
happy sailor. Four days later the German air force bombed Grimsby naval
area, a bomb fell next to the ship causing damage so, once again pack
bag and hammock and return to the navy barracks at Chatham. That was
only time in my life that I was pleased to see the Germans. A few weeks
later ordered to drafting office, five of us were posted to HMS Woolston,
a 1917 destroyer based in Scotland, so I packed my kitbag and hammock
and was off once more. We travelled all night and arrived at
Inverkeithing the next day.
Woolston was at sea and we
were put onboard HMS Cochrane,
a depot ship in Rosyth. A few days’ later plans were changed, HMS Vortigern
was to be my assignment; I packed my worldly possessions and went to
Vortigern, unpacked my gear
and settled down in my new home (so I
thought). A few days’ later plans were changed again!!! HMS Woolston arrived in harbour, lots
of activity in harbour, ships getting ready urgently to go to sea. I
was ordered to join HMS Woolston,
once again I packed my gear and went aboard my original ship. We were
topped up with oil and ammunition.
Dustmen in a group on a windy day": the Stokers after a boiler clean holding the ship's crest
The photograph includes: "Smokey" Meadows (2), "Flash" Bowman (11), Ronnie Barnes (10), Frank Witton (9), Sid Winch (8), Stan Bister (7), Jack Boore (5) and Bill Perry (3) plus Frederick Alexander MacIver, A PO Supplies (4), who shared their Mess
Left: Jack Boore home on leave with
his parents, Fred and Liz Boore, and his brother Albert home from Burma
Courtesy of John Boore
The German battleship Tirpitz had left her base in Norway and all available destroyers in our area were dispatched to intercept her. We then began a chase at full speed up into arctic waters. Not a nice initiation into life in the Royal Navy (the thought of Bear Island still makes me shiver). Fortunately we never sighted the Tirpitz, apparently she got information about a fleet at sea to intercept her and Tirpitz, to our relief returned to Norway.
Shortly after our return to Rosyth we heard the tragic news that HMS Vortigern had been torpedoed by
German E-boats off the East coast and out of a crew of 212 only 12
survived. Lady luck was with me.
Sixty nine V&W Class destroyers were built during the First World War, the ships' names all began with V or W. Modesty and privacy was forgotten as soon as you arrived on these ships, washing facilities consisted of five hand basins in a room no bigger than a broom cupboard, and toilets were five stalls (no doors) for about 160 ratings, fortunately being engine room branch our clothing at sea was minimal i.e. a boiler suit over our underwear. Washing was done in a bucket and put to dry in the boiler room above the boilers. The seamen often never took their clothes off on putting to sea.
horrendous, trying to get along the deck to your place of duty,
boiler or engine room during rough seas, or trying to have a meal when
sometimes the side of the ship was above your head was beyond
description. The stokers' mess deck was forward on ship, down a round
hatch about 36” diameter, twenty-two ate and slept in an area no bigger
ordinary living room, if action stations sounded there was a mad rush
to get out as soon as possible. When in northern waters condensation
poured down the side of the ship,
giving permanent damp conditions , if in the Mediterranean area
the air conditioning was insufficient to keep cool, so one went from
one hell to another, it wasn’t unusual to be in Arctic waters one month
and then in the Mediterranean a month later.
HMS Woolston was my home for three years. Atlantic convoys, Arctic, North Sea Convoys, patrols in Northern waters, Mediterranean, North Africa, Italy and the Sicily Invasion. Joining as a 2nd class stoker on 2/- a day (10p), leaving as a Leading Stoker. I returned to Chatham and then got posted to HMS Suffolk a 10,000 ton cruiser going out to Australia. War ended as did my four and a half years service in the Royal Navy. For my efforts I got £83.
Jack Boore was 90 when he died in March 2013 and
never forgot his time on HMS Woolston
His son John followed him into the Royal Navy and retired as a Chief Petty Officer after 25 years service
Conditions on V & W Class
destroyers were so bad in rough weather that the men who served on them
were paid hard-lying money. These stories by veterans who served on
HMS Woolston were published in Hard Lying,
the magazine of the V & W Destroyer Association and republished in
2005 by the Chairman of the Association,
Clifford ("Stormy") Fairweather, in the book of the same name which is
now out of print. They are reproduced here by kind permission of
Clifford Fairweather and his publisher, Avalon Associates. Copyright
remains with the authors and
photographers who are credited where known.
G Hutchinson describes conditions on HMS Woolston
the 15th July 1944 I was posted to HMS Pembroke
to await my first sea posting. I purchased a gold wire
winged flash of lightning to sew on the right arm of my best Naval suit
to indicate that I had now passed out as a R.A.D.A.R. Operator.
Although not permitted in peace time, the ‘in' thing for the war time sailors was to be 'tiddly'. This meant, first of all to form a near 'tiddly' bow on the cap band by sewing a small button in the centre of the bow, and instead of wearing the bow over the left ear as per regulations it would he next to the HMS on the hat band and whilst on leave the hat would be worn on the back of the head, something that you would not dare do whilst in barracks.
Next the collar, with the three white stripes attended to, the issue collar was dark blue, so we would bleach it to attain a lighter blue, then you did not look like a 'sprog' who had just joined, and to give the impression that you had served in some warmer climes and your collar had been bleached by the sun. The tunic issue had a distinct 'V’ cut in the front which we cut to a 'U’ shape, and the silk neck piece would be tied in a 'tiddly' bow at the front. The tunic was also machined in at the waist to give a tighter fit. The bell bottom trousers when issued would have 22 inch bottoms, these would have a 4 inch gusset in each leg to give a 26 inch bottom, then to finish off the trousers would be given a good press with seven horizontal creases. Those who could afford to would go to a naval tailor and have all these modifications carried out professionally, then you would keep your 'tiddly suit' for going ashore or on leave only.
Whilst in Chatham barracks we were kept busy square bashing, peeling spuds, mess cleaning, white line washing and generally having our bodies and minds occupied. Walking across Chatham parade ground was not permitted, everything had to be done at the double, otherwise it was at your own peril and you would find yourself with stoppage of pay or stoppage of leave.
I enjoyed some weekend leave whilst there, until I was posted to HMS Woolston at Rosyth dockyard on the 24th September. I caught the train from Kings Cross to Waverley station Edinburgh. Struggling with my kit bag and hammock and weekend case I caught the next train to Inverkeithing, seeing, and crossing the Forth Bridge tor the first time. When I finally arrived at Rosyth dockyard I had to catch a Naval tender to the Woolston who was anchored in mid stream. I was accompanied by another ordinary seaman, Roy Cantwell.
No sooner had we been detailed to the forward port mess deck, stowed our kit bags and hammocks, when we were told that we could go ashore until 230O; Roy and myself took up the offer, even though we had been traveling all day, so back we went to Edinburgh. On our return we found that we had to kip down on the port side lockers because there was insufficient room to sling our hammocks.
Early next morning reveille was piped at about 0500 and after getting dressed we had to muster with the other seamen on the forecastle port side as an equal number, eight men, were lined up on the starboard side.
We weighed anchor or slipped the buoy. It was very calm, but I had not yet found my sea legs and found it very difficult standing still as HMS Woolston slowly made her way under the Forth Bridge out into the Firth of Fourth and on in to the North sea to escort a convoy going South. For the next three days I was seasick and did not feel too good, as a matter of fact I wished that I had never joined. Some of my mess mates did not mind, because they helped themselves to my rations.
Woolston was an old V&W destroyer built in 1918 by Thornycrofts, her recognition and pennant number which was L49 was painted on her sides just forward of the break in the forecastle.
There was a steam capstan in the mess deck and for this inconvenience we were entitled to an extra I/- a day classified as Hard Lying money. The stokers and artificers mess was just below the seamen's mess. Just forward of the break in forecastle and between the port and starboard gangways was situated a small cooks galley, two members from each mess would prepare the food and take it to the galley for the cook to do his duty. The heads (toilets) and washrooms were situated between the bulkheads from the break of the forecastle to the mess decks. You could not afford to be shy when using the toilets, because the partition between the pans were so low that you could pass the time of day with you 'oppo' sitting on the next pan. The officers’ quarters and wardroom were situated aft.
HMS Woolston was armed with twin four-inch gun turrets fore and aft coupled with rocket launchers. On port and starboard amidships were single Bofor guns. For submarine warfare there were depth charge rollers astern and depth charge throwers on both starboard and port quarters. There was an Asdic set plus two radar sets, one amidships and one just above the bridge.
Invariably there would be three escort vessels on patrol and occasionally four. Sometimes we would have the old American four stackers which had been transferred under the Lend Lease Agreement. During theses escort duties I would spend my watch on the midship radar set. This set did not have a cathode ray tube which showed a circular sweep. Instead it depicted echo's in a straight line with blips bobbing up and down. One could distinguish between low flying aircraft and ships. I would also do a watch on the forward gun turret. In the winter, one of the crew would go down to the galley and bring back a jug of 'Kye'. It was a very thick chocolate drink which was made from scraping a solid block of this special chocolate into a 'fanny' and adding water, then brought to the boil, depending on who made it, it could be thick enough to stand a spoon up in it.
At times we would have a little quiet sing-song among the gun crew, but we would get a very curt command from the bridge if we raised our voices too high. It was different when I was on the radar set, for I would be alone for four hours, just watching the echo's bobbing up an down on the screen and only reporting if there was anything suspect occurring.
The washing of clothes or 'dhobeying' would be done in a bucket and was either hung amidships between the two smoke stacks or hung down in the engine room to dry. At sea we were permitted to wear overalls as rig of the day, with leather sea boots which reached up to the knee and thick white sea boot stockings which were turned over the top of the sea boots, but as soon as we sailed into harbour it was back to Naval uniform.
It could be very cold on convoy and if the weather was bad, as it often was, the heavy seas would wash over the destroyers low deck line from the break in the forecastle to the stern. I was fortunate to be one of those recipients of one of the lambs wool lined leather coats donated by South Africa. Also in rough weather, life-lines would be rigged from the break in the forecastle to the stern. On these lines would be short lengths of rope with an eye splice and thimble, so that anyone walking along the deck could do so with reasonable safety.
There were times when the convoy would come to a complete standstill due to thick fog. The escort vessels had radar, but not all the merchant ships were so well equipped, I can remember one day when I was on duty on the forward gun turret, in one of the lay-to situations when a submarine conning tower just slid past our bows. I can only assume that it was one of ours. On other occasions the nearness of the enemy became was plain to see. Action stations would be sounded and then some unfortunate merchant ship would receive the full force of an exploding torpedo and within minutes would be going down to the bottom. Sometimes action stations were not sounded until the first torpedo had struck. In either cases it would be full steam ahead and as soon as the depth charges had been set, they were either rolled off the stem or fired from the quarter throwers.
From the time I joined the Woolston to the end of the war with Germany I think we only had one possible sinking of a U-boat. We saw oil and clothing come to the surface, but as that was a ploy played by both sides to mislead the attacking surface ships, it could not be classified as a kill only a probable.
When we eventually returned to the mess deck, we would find that the enormous pressure of the exploding depth charges had stressed the ship’s riveted plates and she had let in water. Another consequence of depth charge explosions were that some of the hammock slinging bars would snap and some of the matelot's would have to find somewhere else to sleep. I had to wait four or five weeks before I was allocated a berth when one of my shipmates was drafted off the ship. The hammocks were so closely slung that we were virtually in one large swaying bed. To avoid breathing each others breath we used to sleep alternately head to foot.
If there happened to be action stations during the night, we would immediately come awake, grab some clothes and run like mad to our action stations. On one occasion a German E-boat sped up between the lines of the merchant ships, firing its torpedo's and guns. There was a bit of a 'ding-dong', but no major hit, just shell holes in the ships funnels and side. Sometimes the rough sea would free mines from their moorings and these floating hazards would give the gun crews some extra practice.
We were granted four free travel warrants each year, so when the Woolston went into Leith dockyard for a refit I used one for some home leave. The train journey from Edinburgh took some 8 to 9 hours overnight, the train was always completely crowded with service personnel going on or returning from leave. When the train pulled into Kings Cross it was an experience to see the number of service men who had no ticket, with just one or two ticket collectors on duty, they had no chance to slop the surge of passengers, some would jump over the barriers or would offer any piece of cardboard that looked like a ticket. Most of the ticket collectors could not care less as they probably had some member of their family serving in the forces anyway. Some of the servicemen would just push their way through the barrier without offering tickets or fare.
In early May 1945 HMS Woolston with another six destroyers left Rosyth and headed towards Norway.
In war time the warship sheds its
spit and polish. Shining brass and ivory
decks are all very well in peace time when there is time for shining
and scrubbing. In war there are guns to be manned and extra lookouts to
be maintained in a steady, constant search for the enemy. We sailed
with the crew at action stations, a trying duty, and at a state of
instant readiness. Some respite when the order is cruising stations,
but there is scarcely a minute of the voyage when there isn't some
Memories of HMS Woolston by A.M. Lee
An anonymous contribution to Hard Lying, the anthology of articles first published in the newsletter of the V & W Destroyer Association"Woolston was among the Naval vessels that took part in the invasion of Sicily, and celebrated her birthday by escorting a convoy to the landing beaches. Once the ships were safely in, her job was to patrol for lurking U-boats and stand by to give a blazing reception to enemy aircraft which might try to interfere with the convoy.