Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationHMS WORCESTER

John Francis Newdigate (‘Bill’) Wedge
 13 July 1921 - 7 January 2020

Obituary of Bill Wedge in The Telegraph on 12 February 2020
This obituary of 98 year old Bill Wedge, the last officer alive who served in HMS Worcester during the Channel Dash, was published in The Telegraph on 12 February 2020

The obituary below was written by Bill's son-in-law, Ron Crompton. Ron met Bill's daughter Leslie while they were students at Bristol University in 1968 and they married in 1979. They had three children, Simon and twins Joanna and Mathew, who are now in their thirties with families of their own. Ron pursued a career as an international management consultant but lived nearby in Richmond and saw his father-in-law frequently and knew him well.


Bill was born and brought up in Forest Hill, south-east London, the eldest of three children. He had a sister Pat and brother Philip (‘Pip’). Bill was 98 when he died and all three lived into their 90’s and his brother ‘Pip’, who began as a music journalist with New Musical Express but lived for thirty years in Canada working on programming for commercial television, is still alive.

Their father John Frederick Wedge (1883-1954) was a merchant seaman, apprenticed at the age of 16 in a three masted sailing ship, the Aldergrove, on the run from Chile to Australia, taking nitrates out and coal or wheat back. For four years he didn’t return home. He also worked on cable-laying ships around Africa and in the Indian Ocean. Bill wrote in his Diary that his father "progressed to second mate and told tales of fights, with Chinese crewmen trying to gouge his eyes, and of sleeping with a string connecting his toe and the door handle, with a revolver beside him. He qualified as a Master Mariner but never had a command in steam. He travelled the Indian Ocean and New Zealand among other places, latterly in cable-laying ships, and was ship-wrecked two or three times." He was nicknamed Bosun or ‘Bosun Bill’, and from an early age his son was nicknamed ‘Little Bill', and then just Bill. 

Bill's Mother mother was the seventh child of a family who owned several tobacconist shops. She had fair curly hair and was nicknamed ‘Bubbles’, later changed to ‘Bobbie’. She was 26 when Bill was born and his father 38. 'Bosun Bill' left the sea and worked in nautical journalism and publishing and became the editor of the standard book of reference, Brown’s Flags and Funnels. His father's life at sea must have innspired Bill Wedge to serve in the Navy when the war came.

There was not much money in the family as Bill was growing-up, but he was a bright child and won a free place at Roan School in Blackheath which, in his words. ‘was throughout a great joy to me’ – the teaching, the scout camps and the sports.

Bill left school at 16 and after studying for his banking exams joined Barclays at 17. It was 1938 and he knew war was coming, and joined the RNVR as his father had done in World War 1. He could not imagine himself in an aircraft and certainly didn’t want to be a solider charging with a fixed bayonet. 

War Service in HMT Norse and HMS Worcester

Bill Wedge in naval uniformHe was called up on the day war was declared and signed on as a Telegraphist (he had been a short-wave enthusiast in his mid-teens, exchanging messages around the world and listening to US, Cuban and South American music stations during the night hours). After six months training at a former Butlins holiday camp in Skegness he joined his first ship, HMT Norse, a requisitioned trawler being used as a minesweeper on the Thames Estuary, at Sheerness in April 1940.

His minesweeper provided a grandstand view of three events that determined Britain’s future:  the ‘armada of little craft returning from Dunkirk’, the Battle of Britain, when Bill observed the dogfights in ‘cloudless and beautiful’ skies and the Blitz with waves of bombers flying overhead on their way to London. He felt safer at sea than on home leave in Forest Hill during a bombing raid.

Bill was commissioned as an officer and joined the destroyer HMS Worcester at Harwich as a Midshipman in May 1941. He was in charge of the pom-pom anti-aircraft guns when at action stations. Worcester was an escort for east coast convoys from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth to the Thames estuary. Bill was promoted to Sub Lt J.F.N. Wedge, RNVR and his lively pen sketches of the Wardroom on Worcester provides an insight into the life lived by wartime officers.

On 12 February 1942  Worcester was one of six V & W Class destroyers which took part in the attack on the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and cruiser Prinz Eugen, on their Channel Dash from Brest to Wilhelmshaven at the mouth of the River Elbe. Bill describes his memories of that day on this website.

The Worcester was the last to attack and was hit repeatedly, lost power, drifted to expose her port side, was heavily damaged, on fire with the bridge destroyed and with both boiler rooms flooded she was close to sinking. Twenty-six crew were dead. Bill survived but ‘very foolishly’ had taken the cotton wool from his ears to hear orders better and was partly deaf in his left ear for the rest of his life. In his 90s he became the last surviving participant of the Channel Dash and was honoured at the 75th remembrance in 2017.

Bill left HMS Worcester while she was being repaired and was sent to the Clyde and Scapa Flow and then on anti-submarine training before being sent to New York in August 1943 where his next ship HMS Garlies, a Captain Class Frigate, was being built at athe Boston Naval Yard on the east Coast of America as an Atlantic escort.

He spent five weeks in New York awaiting her completion. He had been a jazz and big-band fan from his teens and visited all the clubs (which charged half-price or nothing for servicemen) and saw Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Powell, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. He was 22 and in heaven.

HMS Garlies and the 1st Escort Group

Reality intervened and by September 1943 HMS Garlies was based at Belfast as part of the 1st Escort Group at sea for three weeks at a time escorting Atlantic convoys with her sister ships HMS Afleck, Gould and Gore.  They were part of the longest U-boat chase in the Atlantic war lasting 38 hours which ended with the sinking of U-358 on 1 March 1944 with only one survivor. 

Bill wrote this description of the chase and its outcome in his Diary:

"A day or so later we in Garlies got a strong signal and it was decided to attack using the Hedgehog, which threw a pattern of missiles ahead of us, rather than go over the contact with depth charges.  Something was wrong with the electric circuit and the Hedgehog did not fire.  We kept contact, and for one night we did a square patrol, keeping the U-Boat in the centre.  He surfaced once for air but submerged before we could attack.

Captain Walker had invented the ‘creep’ attack.  Depth charges could be set to go off at a required depth, but U-Boats were now able to submerge below the deepest setting.  However, if no setting was made, the pressure of water would eventually overcome the safety setting, so, instead of going at full speed to drop the pattern of depth charges and get out of the way before they exploded, the hunting group would steam very slowly, dropping an unset depth charge from each ship every ten or twenty seconds.  We tried this once or twice but still didn’t get him.  After some twenty-four hours Gore and Garlies were detached and sent to Gibraltar, where reinforcement was needed to prevent U-Boats getting into the Mediterranean.  Affleck and Gould continued the hunt.  Thirty-eight hours after first contact the U-Boat surfaced and torpedoed GouldAffleck then sank the U-Boat, picking up one survivor, who, understandably, had become a nervous wreck.  It was the longest hunt of the war – and our Hedgehog should have got him at the beginning."

He said of his service in the Navy that he was sea-sick for the first six months but was scared for the whole of it.   

In 1944 the patrolling switched to the English Channel, tasked with preventing U-Boats attacking the Normandy invasion. By Christmas although the war was winding down U-boats were still a threat and two destroyers which in Garlies’ Escort Group were torpedoed and heavily damaged with loss of life as described by Bill in his Diary:

"On Christmas Eve 1944 we were patrolling east of Cherbourg.  I was on watch and we saw a sudden cloud of smoke from one of a small troop convoy heading for Cherbourg.  We were probably ten miles away and we watched horror-stricken as the ship very gradually sank.  There seemed no urgency among the escort – and it was astonishing to learn later that some six hundred US army men had been lost.  We had thought there was all the time in the world to rescue them – and that the escort (a flotilla of ‘B’ class destroyers from Portsmouth) would have been seeking the U-Boat.

On Christmas Day we had played ‘Holy Night’ over the public address system in the ship - and John Hope, vicar’s son, had hidden in the heads (lavatories), as he was so allergic to anything ‘churchy’.  Then on Boxing Day afternoon (I was on watch, of course) HMS Capel, alongside us, had its forepart blown off  and Affleck was struck by a torpedo which damaged its stern but didn’t sink it.  We had earlier been into the Channel Islands (Alderney?) and been fired at by shore batteries as we sought this brilliant U-Boat Commander."

A happier memory was when Garlies put into Devonport to refuel and a boat crewed by Wrens secured alongside and the wrens were invited on board for a drink. He remembered one of them, a brown-eyed brunette called Jackie Roberts, ‘vividly’.  Bill remained in the RNVR for a year after the war ended in May 1945, initially assigned to a destroyer based at Devonport:

"A day or two later I received instructions to proceed to Devonport Dockyard to join HMS Wheatland, a Hunt Class destroyer just back from the Mediterranean and being refitted to go out East.  I was a Temporary Lieutenant RNVR by then – this was automatic after, I think, two and a half years as a Sub Lieutenant.  It was rather longer in my case – 'Happy Caple' [Lt. Reginald Lacey Caple, DSC, RN, the CO of HMS Garlies] had had the necessary papers in his drawer and had forgotten (or perhaps decided to delay!) sending them forward."

He couldn’t believe his luck. He looked up Jackie, saw her almost every day and when they shared a train to London on home leave persuaded her to break her engagement to an American tug skipper. They were formally engaged six weeks later and married in 1946.

Throughout the war and for the rest of his life, Bill wrote poetry. He’d been introduced to it at school and loved Rupert Brooke. He wrote beautifully evocative poems about his war experience and poems such as ‘Action Stations’ (written on his minesweeper in 1940) and ‘Escort Duty’ from an Atlantic convoy were included in anthologies of war poetry for many years.
Many of his poems dealing with the war can still be seen on his blog. His most moving poem is to his childhood friend Ralph, a pilot who flew on many dangerous missions until he was lost over Malta.


Bill Wedge in later lifeBill re-joined Barclays in spring 1946. Barclays seemed dull and uninviting compared to the Navy, but he and Jackie were due to be married and they needed a steady income. He would say later that he re-joined because he thought work in the the bank finished at 3pm and he would have plenty of time to write his poetry

He was assigned to the Earls Court branch, which had customers such as the cricketer Learie Constantine, the writer Rebecca West, the politician Woodrow Wyatt, a young Doris Day and fairly well-known actors, broadcasters and musicians. He loved that.

He was at various branches in central London, in Oxford St, Langham Place, Minories and at West End Foreign in Pall Mall where he became Manager. On his commute, walking across St James’s Park and the Mall, he usually wore a pin-stripe suit and bowler hat and carried a rolled-up umbrella - the model British banker. He would raise his hat to groups of tourists in coaches or on foot, while they took photographs of him. He later wrote an article for the Barclays magazine called “On Being a Tourist Attraction”.  

In 1970 he moved on to the International side of Barclays, responsible for correspondent banks in Asia. It suited him – he was by nature diplomatic, interested in meeting people and easy to get on with. He also liked entertaining, whether at home, when the bankers visited Britain, or in Asia, although some bankers were notoriously difficult to talk to and some dishes difficult to stomach.

He travelled extensively throughout Asia, with Jackie joining him on occasions, and he made many friendships that endured into retirement. His travels enabled him to pursue his passion for birdwatching, and banks would often arrange local bird-watching trips for him at weekends. His most satisfying moment was the opening in 1980 of the first Barclays presence in the new emerging China, which he had been cultivating for many years.


He retired in 1981, aged 60, and was retired for more years than he worked. He wore many hats. He was very involved in Asia-related societies in London. At Barclays, he had represented the bank on the Indonesian, Malay Singapore and Anglo-Thai Associations, and was on the committee, and sometime Chairman, of the British Philippine Society; he also initiated the British Asian Dinner. In retirement he continued with the Philippine Society and was also Treasurer of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs (RSAA) for 15 years and an active member of his beloved Oriental Club.

Locally Bill was a Commissioner of Income Tax for south London, hearing appeals against income tax assessments. He lived at Carshalton, between Sutton and Croydon, for 47 years and was active in his local church, All Saints Carshalton, and on its church council for twenty years and later in the Sutton Probus Club. 

He also found time to travel with Jackie throughout Asia (and elsewhere), sometimes on RSAA organised trips, at other times on trips where he was invited by old friends in Asian banks.


But his real love was his family. He and Jackie, who survives him at 94, were married for 73 years. They had three children, Lesley, Jonathan (‘Jono’) and Philippa, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren (two of them born in the last six months of his life).

He was adored by his grandchildren, to whom he was ‘Pops’; he and Jackie were always welcoming, keen to hear their news and never judgemental. In his 80s, he became the hub of emails from the grandchildren when they were travelling; they emailed him and he passed them on to members of the wider family. They said that he showed more interest in what they were doing than anybody else.

Bill had a long life, well-lived and he will be missed by everyone who knew him.            

Ron Crompton
January 2020
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