In a previous post (Escaping Blackburn for a Life at Sea -Researching Royal Navy Service: 1902-1934) I wrote about my great-grandfather, James Thompson (1885-1957) who left Blackburn for Portsmouth at the age of 17 to join the Navy in 1902 and went on to serve for 22 years in regular service followed by 10 years in the reserves. Along the way, he married a Portsmouth girl – Ellen Purchess – and produced 11 children, the eldest of whom died at a month old.
His eldest surviving son was my grandad, Frank Victor Thompson. Frank died when I was a baby so I have no memory of him, but he is still very fondly talked about in the family. My mum described him as a modern dad, way ahead of his time. As a father to 2 daughters, he could cut and style their hair, stitch their dresses and turn his hand to anything around the house, as well as being an engineer by trade. He was generous to a fault and was often berated by my grandma for buying a drink for anyone with a sob story in his favourite haunt, Yates’ Wine Lodge in Blackburn town centre.
Frank was born in 1911 in Portsmouth and spent his childhood there while his dad was in the Navy. I don’t know much about his childhood, other than his appearance on the 1911 Census for England and Wales (1911census.co.uk) as a 2 month-old, living at 49 Yorke Street, Southsea, Portsmouth. As often occurs with big families, he became closest to his next oldest sibling Vernon Joseph (who I did get to know as my Uncle Vern) born in 1913. As the family grew, Frank devised a 4-note ‘family whistle’ so that if any of his brothers and sisters were in trouble around the streets of Portsmouth, or on their frequent camping trips in the New Forest, this short, distinctive whistle would bring the nearest one running to help. My dad adopted this whistle when my brother and me were little and we all still use it to this day with our own families – very effective at busy meeting points, or if you become separated in crowded shopping malls.
Obtaining RN Service Records
When his dad’s career in regular service with the Navy ended in 1924, Frank and his brothers and sisters moved up to Blackburn, where their ancestral roots lay. Outside of birth, marriage and death certificates, any online genealogy records beyond the 1911 census, and Ancestry.com’s WW1 Army Service records are a bit thin on the ground. The National Archives has an online collection http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/navy.asp of Royal Navy records for officers and Royal Marines that in some cases go up to 1960, but for ratings its Registers of Seamen’s Services currently ends at 1923. This is where I had got access to James Thompson’s service records from, but for Frank’s I was going to have to apply directly to the Royal Navy itself. The Royal Navy’s website forwarded me to the MOD’s website and its regulations on applying for service records not yet released through the National Archives.
The MOD will only disclose limited service details up to 25 years after the death of the serviceman if the request is without the consent of the next of kin; after 25 years the MOD will disclose all information available without next of kin consent. With the consent of the immediate next of kin the 25 year threshold doesn’t apply. A £30 search fee is charged per record and a copy of a death certificate must be provided (except where death was in service).
Although it had been well over 25 years since Frank’s death, I still applied with the immediate next of kin (my mum)’s consent, by downloading and completing the Application Part 1 Next of Kin consent form and the Application Part 2 form for the Royal Navy . If you don’t have the next of kin’s consent, you can still apply at Part 1 with a General Enquirer’s form. The details of the deceased serviceman are given at Part 2. The more information you can give, the better chance there is of a service record being located and returned sooner. As an absolute minimum, full name plus date and place of birth should be included. If you can give a service number, this makes the job of the researchers very easy. Luckily, I recalled Frank’s service number being on my mum’s birth certificate (she was a war baby). Getting a copy of his death certificate was a little trickier as the original had long gone, but I was able to get the date of his death and registration details from and order a death certificate online via the General Records Office certificate ordering service.
I sent both forms and a copy of the death certificate off as requested to the RN Disclosure Cell at Portsmouth; TNT Records Management ‘Navy Search’ sent back a holding reply acknowledging receipt. Six weeks later an envelope came through the post. There was a covering letter containing some useful information on interpreting the records, a photocopy of Frank’s incomplete service record card, the missing service history extracted from the ‘Payment and Victual Ledgers’ and a photocopy of his medal entitlement. I could now piece together those defining 13 years of his life.
Training as a Stoker
Frank joined the Navy on 6 December 1932 at the age of 21. His civilian occupation listed as Warehouseman, he now followed in his father’s shoes and trained as a Stoker.
The duties of a stoker had moved on in the 30 years since his father had first joined the Navy. The generation of steamships that Frank was to serve on did not consume ton after ton of coal, carried in wheelbarrows and shovelled manually into furnaces to propel them along. Instead fuel oil heated their boilers, which converted distilled seawater to steam, powering the turbines which turned the propeller shafts. The ‘modern’ stoker was trained in the maintenance of the vast amounts of equipment required to run this machinery, but it remained hot and dirty work (greasy rather than dusty).
HMS Hood – Mediterranean 1933-37
Following stoker training on the shore establishment HMS Victory 2, Frank joined the crew of HMS Hood in April 1933, where he was to spend the next 4 years. The website of the HMS Hood Association gives a plethora of information on the operational record of the ship, as well as its notable crew members and technical specifications following her launch in 1918 to her untimely loss in 1941 when all but 3 of her 1,418 crew were killed. Frank’s time on the Hood was spent on a cycle of service in the home waters between Portsmouth and Rosyth and on patrol in the Mediterranean, where he would have become very familiar with the ports at Gibraltar, Palma, Barcelona, Marseilles, Malta, Corfu, Algiers, Tangier and Madeira (which sound exotic, but where full of “hells, bells and bloody bad smells,” according to Frank). The heightening tensions of the 1930s became apparent when, between September and December 1935, the Hood was stationed at Gibraltar as a show of strength during the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The Hood was visited by the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia at this time.
Marrying a Blackburn Girl – 1936
The ship’s record shows that from 14 November 1934 – 15 January 1935 the Hood was in dock at Portsmouth. A few days after docking, on 18 November 1934, Frank took the opportunity to post this letter to his sweetheart – Mary Whiteside – in Blackburn.
I don’t know whether Frank had met Mary Whiteside, my grandma, before or after he joined the Navy, but they kept up their long distance relationship and married in Blackburn on 1 August 1936 (while the Hood was again in dock at Portsmouth for repairs). Vern acted as Frank’s best man.
Frank returned the favour a couple of years later when Vern married Alice Whittle, Mary’s best friend since primary school.
At this time Frank had spent 18 months ashore at Portsmouth on the establishment of Victory 2, presumably in training as he emerged with his Leading Stoker tapes. On 1 July 1939 he was assigned to HMS Eagle.
HMS Eagle – Indian Ocean 1939-40
The website Naval History shows that the Eagle was in the Far East at this time, deployed on the China Station. She had been re-commissioned in Hong Kong as Frank, as part of her new ship’s company, took a sea passage to join her. HMS Eagle was a former Chileanbattleship laid down before World War I and purchased by Britain in 1918 for conversion as an early aircraft carrier. At this time was she was equipped with Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers.
On the outbreak of the war in September 1939, the Eagle was transferred to the East Indies Squadron and deployed in trade defence and in the interception of German mercantiles or ‘commerce raiders’. She was briefly diverted to the South Atlantic in December 1939 to assist in the hunt for the German battleships Graf Spee and Admiral Sheer following the Battle of the River Plate, before resuming Indian Ocean interception duties. In January 1940 the Eagle was assigned to escorting a military convoy, comprising 12 large ocean liners carrying ANZAC troops for service in Egypt, to the Gulf of Aden. A planned return to the UK in February was cancelled, no doubt to the disappointment of all on board, as the Eagle was required to escort a second ANZAC troop convoy in their passage across the Indian Ocean. In March 1940, while in the Bay of Bengal, a major explosion occurred in the bomb room which killed 14 members of the ship’s company; they were later buried in Singapore. The ship’s company moved into shore accommodation in Singapore in April as the Eagle underwent repair and refit.
HMS Eagle – Mediterranean 1940-41
In May 1940 the Eagle was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet, in anticipation of outbreak of war with Italy, and operated in the Aegean Sea to engage the Italian Fleet following the outbreak of hostilities. In early July 1940, after the fall of France to the Germans, the Eagle was involved in measures to ensure French warships deployed at Alexandria were prevented from leaving the port. On 9 July the Eagle was involved in a major engagement with the Italian Fleet 30 miles off the ‘toe’ of Italy, known as the Battle of Calabria. The battle itself was indecisive as both fleets were evenly matched, though damage was sustained on both sides.
Frank was by now finding the Mediterranean hotter in more ways than one. From July 1940 onwards the Eagle was recorded as being under frequent air attack, including at night whilst in harbour at Alexandria. On 29 July, while under air attack, the ship’s aircraft destroyed a bomber – they also continued to inflict damage on the Italian surface fleet and her submarines, but sustained their own losses too. On 1 November 1940 the Eagle came under heavy and sustained attacks whilst deployed in the Aegean and had to be withdrawn from operational service for 2 weeks for an extensive refit at Alexandria to repair the damage. She resumed service later that month to provide cover for the passage of troop convoys to Greece and to carry out night air attacks on Tripoli. The Eagle continued countering the Italian threat to convoy traffic and carrying out successful attacks on the Italian fleet into 1941. On 21 March 1941, Frank, now an old veteran at the age of 30 – particularly as the war was bringing many young, inexperienced recruits – was promoted to Stoker Petty Officer.
HMS Eagle – South Atlantic 1941
In April 1941, the Eagle was released from Mediterranean service and headed for Mombasa, Kenya, to search for commerce raiders in the Indian Ocean. From there she headed for Capetown for further search duty in the South Atlantic throughout May – September. The search operations for German supply ships known to be deployed in support of the battleship Bismarck were controlled directly by the Admiralty in London based on the decryption of the German Enigma Code.
During her deployment on interception and patrol in the South Atlantic, the Eagle refuelled and replenished at the island of St Helena and at Freetown, Sierra Leone. Freetown was an R&R destination for the crew’s infrequent ‘runs ashore’, though whether Frank enjoyed this is unclear as these stops were used for essential maintenance such as boiler cleaning. Even off operational duty the crew could be in danger – in August during a period in Freetown, one of the ship’s company was killed when a guard rail failed and he fell from the Bridge structure.
The Eagle’s crew finally made it back to the UK at the end of October 1941, after more than 2 years away, when she underwent a refit by Cammell Laird at Liverpool. The Eagle was in dock until early January, so Frank will have managed to get some precious time at home in Blackburn with Mary.
When he rejoined the ship, he had a new crew mate with him – his brother Vern. Vern had joined the Navy on the outbreak of war as a signalman and, without applying for it, had now been transferred to the Eagle.
The Sinking of the Eagle – Mediterranean 1942
In February 1942, the Eagle, with the 2 brothers on board, was back in the Mediterranean providing cover for the delivery of Spitfire aircraft and other supplies to the besieged island of Malta. Malta was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war as the Germans and Italians, recognising its strategic importance in the Mediterranean, attempted to starve it into submission with attacks on its ports, towns, cities, as well as the Allied shipping supplying it.
As 1942 rolled on into the summer, the Eagle was increasingly coming under heavy and sustained attack while escorting the Malta supply convoys in the western Mediterranean, particularly from the air by torpedo bombers. In August 1942, her luck ran out.
On 10 August, the Eagle was part of Operation Pedestal, providing cover for the passage of the Malta Convoy through the Skerki Narrows between Sicily and Cape Bon – known as ‘Bomb Alley’ to Allied sailors. On Tuesday 11 August at 1315 hours, 80 miles south of Majorca , a German U-Boat penetrated the destroyer screen and launched 4 torpedoes at the Eagle.
On the BBC website WW2 People’s War, an archive of WW2 memories by eye-witnesses, George Amyes of the Fleet Air Arm recalls the moment:
“The Eagle shuddered with four distinct lurches. For some reason I thought we had hit a school of whales! The deck tilted under my feet and to my astonishment I saw a pair of seaboots flying through the air and disappear overboard. These were followed by other pieces of debris and as the ship began to list I realised that we were in serious trouble. Loose fittings began to clatter around. Frightened voices shouted and men began to stream up from the lower decks to reach higher positions. Bodies were already floundering in the water below. And the wake of the Eagle had developed a distinct curve as the vessel pulled out of line. The rhythmic throb of the main engines died away and the ship slewed further around rapidly keeling over. Looking over the side I was amazed to see that the green slimed bulge of the torpedo blister was above the surface of the water. (Designed to withstand a charge of 750 per square inch, the torpedo blister was supposed to deflect the force of underwater explosions and preserve the hull of the ship).
I never did hear the order to abandon ship, but when I saw marines jumping from the flight deck, hurtling past the gundeck, and hitting the rising torpedo blister as the ship keeled over I really did begin to get worried. Less than two minutes had past, and the marines that had smashed themselves to jelly when they jumped had already slithered away leaving behind a blood streaked trail of slime. I clambered through the rails, and suddenly I too was sitting on the torpedo blister. Two ratings were already there, terrified, they could not swim. An officer slid between the two ratings and shouted, “now is your time to learn,” and with a rating beneath each arm he dived into the sea. I never saw them again.
Taking a deep breath I blew up my inflatable lifebelt which was a permanent part of our dress when we were afloat. Remembering our survival lectures, I hurriedly kicked off my deck shoes, pushed myself away and before I could think I was upside down 20 feet under the water and frantically holding my breath whist I looked around for a lighter colour in my surroundings that would indicate the surface. The next few seconds seemed like a lifetime and as I broke through to the surface my throat and chest seemed to explode with relief.
When I was able to think, I heard someone shouting, “get the charges”. “Oh my God!” I thought. The depth charges for the aircraft, were they primed? My horizon from wave level was limited. Eagle was just a bulge in my vision. Then she was gone. My throat filled with bile, and as I looked around my small watery world I saw other frightened faces and suddenly I did not feel quite so lonely. “Swim away from the ship, depth charges, suction, the boilers will explode!” All these things went through my brain, but where was the ship? Which was the way to swim? Swim! Swim! Swim! The sea suddenly boiled; an unbelievable crushing pressure stunned my senses, and I spun around in the water like a toy and when I could think again I was once more in my own little watery world. Something bumped into me from behind; it was “Stripey”, the twelve year service man who was the “Daddy” of our messdeck, but something was wrong. His face was discoloured, his eyes staring, and he was flopping uncontrollably in the water. I grabbed for him, and my clutch slithered down his torso, and suddenly there was nothing but mush. From the waste down he was just offal, sliced in half, and gone. Panic stricken I pushed him away and felt my stomach heaving uncontrollably. We drifted apart.
A ten feet length of timber came within my view and I kicked out for it and thankfully draped myself across its length. My relief was pathetic. A Carley float drifted close, it was filled to overflowing, but it was human companionship. I abandoned my length of timber and struck out for the float. As quickly as I swam the float was carried away even more quickly and again I found myself alone. Sometime after I saw another struggling figure in the water and made contact with him. He was weak and in great difficulty. I swam behind him, took him in my arms holding his head above water and tried to talk to him. His overalls were greasy and the buttons clogged. I was not able to get to his identity tags but I realised that he was one of the ‘black gang’ (an engineer). Gradually his struggles ceased and I wondered how badly he might have been injured. Clinging to him and trying to encourage him to make an effort we drifted away together. Time seemed to standstill and have no meaning. Gradually I became aware that his struggles had stopped; I looked into his face, his eyes were rolled back until just the whites were showing, his mouth hung slackly open rimmed with a green froth and as the sea washed over his face he made no move to protect himself. I would not believe that he too was dead; if we could be picked up now there might still be time for him!
Swim! Kick! Breathe! Spit! The actions became automatic. Look for the sun. What is the angle? How long have we been together? My own clothing was waterlogged! I could not strip off my overalls without losing my lifebelt! I would not strip off my overalls because of the terrible stinging wounds that could be inflicted by jellyfish. Eventually I reached over and released the valve on his lifebelt. I thought, he is dead now. If he can sink, at least the seagulls will not peck out his eyes. Once again I was alone and once again a spar of drifting wood saved me. Suddenly there was a second spar! How I managed I do not know but I heard my own voice laughing and shouting; a spar was under each arm crossed like a great V in front of me and I was laid between the two spars kicking my feet and legs up and down and plunging forward at great speed – to nowhere!
How long! It did not matter! Just plunge along and when you are too tired just lie between the two spars and sleep until you cannot wake. My eyes were sore with salt water. I laid my head on my arm, my legs dragged behind me and I began to slip away. Voices! It was only a dream! Voices again! I looked up! There were other people in the water. They were all looking in the same direction and waving! What was it? Another Carley float? A lifeboat perhaps – no it could not be a lifeboat – everything had happened too fast! No one would have had time to launch a lifeboat. Perhaps it was one of the cork survival nets! When I could focus again I saw a small ship. It was almost stopped, scrambling nets were over the sided and willing hands were pulling in survivors. Stimulated into action I began to propel my two spars towards the ship; I tried to steer towards the bows of the ship, and when I thought the time was right I abandoned the two spars and weakly swam for the ship’s side. One rope went past, a scrambling net went past, and I tried to swim more quickly. I was almost exhausted. The weight of my clothes dragging me back and under – it was all in vain – I was going to be left behind. A rope was thrown from somewhere amidships – the ship was slowly moving forward; slow as it was the rope screamed through my hands as I grabbed. Frantically I hung on and was swung alongside the vessel. I was almost into the rudder before I realised that I had a chance. Hand over hand against the force of the moving ship I pulled myself forward. Suddenly I was almost straight up and down and tears of frustration filled my eyes as I realised that I had no strength left to haul myself up the ships side.
There were encouraging shouts from the ship; I passed a loop of rope over my shoulders and around my waist and suddenly I was being hoisted up out of the water. Like a hooked fish, I was hoisted over the rails, uncoiled from the rope and roughly pushed to one side. Half carried. Half dragged. I was thrown amongst a heap of coughing, retching, vomiting humanity. How it happened I do not know but suddenly someone pushed a mug into my hands, “gulp this down at one swig; it will get rid of the oil in your gut.” A mug of neat navy rum is a powerful purgative and soon I wished I was back in the comparative peace of the water.”
In later years Frank and Vern rarely spoke about what happened to them, but Frank came off the worst of the two. He had been caught below decks in the engine rooms. His legs had been badly burned (though he said he’d had the presence of mind to cover his private parts with his cap), but he managed to get up to the deck, inflate his lifejacket and jump overboard. The salty sea water would have made his burns agonising. He found himself floating in the water, clinging on to a crewmate (whose name is now sadly forgotten) who had no life jacket. We don’t know how long they were in there, but Frank’s mate was in a bad way and was getting weaker. Eventually, he said to Frank, “I’m going down Tommo”. As his mate went under, he made an attempt to cling on to Frank’s burned legs, the pain of which caused Frank to lose consciousness. The last thing Frank remembered before he blacked out was his mate’s outstretched hand sinking to the depths, the sun glinting off the signet ring on his finger as it went down.
The News Reaches Home
Back in Blackburn, news of the Eagle’s loss had reached the local papers within 24 hours. The front page of the Northern Daily Telegraph on 12 August 1942 explained that a communiqué from the Admiralty received that afternoon confirmed that the Eagle had been sunk in the Mediterranean. Normally, the Admiralty would not announce the loss of a ship before next of kin had been informed – while the Germans announced the sinking of the Eagle, the Admiralty had asked the UK press to hold off publishing the story. One newspaper disregarded this request, leaving the Admiralty with no option but to confirm the loss of the ship through the press. None of the next of kin, including the wives and parents of Frank and Vern, knew whether their loved ones were alive or dead.
One can’t imagine how they all felt. My Grandma said she remembered old Ellen Thompson cry out, “My sons, my sons!” when she was told. A family friend recalls that she called in on Alice that evening and found her and Mary comforting each other – heartbroken and in tears. They had to wait another 24 hours before Alice received a telegram:
It was from Vern and simply said ‘Both Safe’. It transpired that Frank had been picked up by a Portuguese trawler and taken to hospital in Gibraltar. Vern had also been taken to Gibraltar and had managed to track Frank down. They were two of the 929 of the Eagle’s crew rescued. A total of 131 crew members, mainly from the ship’s machinery spaces, had been killed. The Eagle had gone within 6 minutes of being hit. The relieved family in Blackburn reported their news to the local paper that same day.
Frank was transferred from hospital in Gibraltar back to the UK in early September to recover and to get some well earned home leave in Blackburn with Mary. He was still in good working order because Mary became pregnant.
HMS Matchless – The Arctic Convoys 1942-44
In November 1942 Frank was back at sea in his third ship, HMS Matchless. The Matchless had been launched the year before. Looking at her operational record on Naval History, Frank was now in a new theatre of war – escorting the Russian convoys in the Arctic.
The Arctic Convoys of World War II travelled between North America and the UK to the northern ports of the Soviet Union, delivering vital supplies to the Soviet Union. The route to the Soviet ports around occupied Norway was dangerous due to the proximity of German forces, as well as the severe weather, fog, ice and the problems presented by either constant darkness or constant daylight in the far northern latitudes. Losses on both sides were heavy.
Frank was on the Arctic Convoys through the first half of 1943 when another crisis hit him. At the end of May 1943, Mary had gone into labour and given birth to their first child (my mum Barbara); there had been complications with the birth and Mary was now dangerously ill. There were fears for both of them and Frank was called home. Luckily, both mother and baby pulled through.
The Sinking of the Scharnhorst 1943
By October 1943 Frank was back on the Arctic Convoys on board the Matchless. On 25 December she was detached to reinforce the escort of a convoy under threat by the German battleship Scharnhorst and accompanying destroyers. In the resulting Battle of the North Cape on 26 December, the last battle between big gun capital ships in the war between Britain and Germany, the Scharnhorst was sunk. Of her total complement of 1,968, only 36 were pulled from the freezing waters alive, 6 of them by the Matchless. Later, Frank said that he felt no feelings of satisfaction or revenge after what had happened to him on the Eagle; with the empathy common amongst all sailors, he “felt sorry for the poor bastards” of the Scharnhorst who had died in the Arctic waters.
Frank’s time on the Arctic Convoys continued up to May 1944, whereupon the Matchless resumed Flotilla duties with the Home Fleet. On 6 June 1944, she was deployed as a screen for the major units of the Home Fleet involved in the allied landings in Normandy. Frank undertook one more convoy escort on board the Matchless at the end of June, carrying stores and mail to North Russia, before the ship took passage to the Humber for a refit at Brigham and Cowan shipyard in Hull.
Returning to Blackburn– 1945
This effectively marked the end of Frank’s war at sea as he was posted to a shore appointment in Portsmouth in August 1944. He at last achieved some domestic stability when Mary and their baby daughter joined him there after he took a Navy Married Quarter. Frank decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps by completing a 22 year pensionable engagement in the Navy. Perhaps both he and Mary had had enough. Unlike his father’s experiences in the First World War, Frank’s time in the Navy during the Second World War had been much more arduous and had involved greater periods of separation from his family. While his mother had been native to Portsmouth and could call upon all of her friends and relations there, Mary’s ‘support network’ lay in Blackburn. So, Frank was released from the Navy on 20 December 1945 after 13 years’ service.
They returned to Blackburn, where the skills Frank acquired in the Navy secured him a job as a turbine engineer at Whitebirk Power Station (long since demolished). Frank and Mary went on to have a second daughter, Myra, in 1947 – she was born in January at the height of the notoriously bad winter; the ambulance couldn’t get to them because of the snow, so Frank actually delivered his second daughter. They had moved into a prefab at 9 Baker St, where they lived until 1960, before buying their own terraced house at 50 Cherry St.
Although Frank rarely discussed his wartime experiences, he never held any bitterness about the war or towards the Germans; when my mum was 15, he encouraged her to go on a school exchange visit to Germany. Both he and Vern had a lasting legacy from their Far East wartime service – malaria, which they periodically suffered from for the rest of their lives. Whenever “a dose of the shakes” came on, Frank would take himself off to a dark room and shiver it out; he took Fennings Fever Cure as a remedy. Whenever he did mention his time in the Navy, it was usually in the form of a daft story – like the time the Captain lost his gold watch over the side of the ship, so Frank got his diving gear on and volunteered to get it; or explaining to my grandma how he lost a gold ring by accidentally dropping it down the ship’s funnel. He enjoyed life.
When Frank died, a fellow survivor from the sinking of the Eagle from Blackburn, named Ray Ratcliffe, wrote a letter of condolence to Mary – he said that every day that Frank had enjoyed since 11 August 1942 really had been a bonus.
Frank died in 1972, at the age of 61. Vern died in 1985 aged 72. Mary died in 1988 aged 74. Alice died in 2004 aged 89.