John Francis Newdigate (‘Bill’) Wedge
13 July 1921 - 7 January 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
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.
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
He 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.
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
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 Gould. Affleck
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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