Battleship cats (and rats)

In August 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked on a top-secret mission aboard the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales to rendezvous with American President Frankin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The accord reached by the two men at that meeting became known as the Atlantic Charter. A few trusted (and sworn to secrecy) media representatives were included in the official party, of whom H. V. Morton was one. Three days into the five day journey Morton decided to explore the ship. His visit to the engine room, “in the temperature of Trinidad”, was brief…….

Ascending with relief to more temperate regions, I was in time to be present at one of those domestic interludes which enliven the existence of a battleship, even in war-time.

Three Marines were holding three cats. They held them not as animal lovers, but as soldiers, as if cats were part of their equipment, as if, indeed, they might be ordered to “for inspection, port cats!”; which is precisely what they were doing. An officer came along and, having scrutinised the cats, solemnly dismissed them.

I was told the explanation. When the Prince of Wales returned from the shipyard after a brief refitment following the Bismarck action, a peculiar smell was noticed on one of the decks. This smell, increasing in volume and pungency, inspired two schools of thought: one, that the shipwrights had used some unusually penetrating glue or other material, the other, that one of the ship’s three cats had chosen an inaccessible hiding-place in which to expire. It was therefore decided to muster the cats and solve at least one of the theories which, as I saw, was happily unfounded.

Churchill and Blackie_2

Winston Churchill discourages ‘Blackie’ from following him on to the American destroyer alongside H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

Until her visit to the shipyard, I was told, the Prince of Wales prided herself on her ratlessness. But when she returned to duty a few rats had come aboard and action was immediately taken. It was proclaimed that any sailor who caught a rat would earn half a day ashore, and this made the life of a rat in the Prince of Wales a brief and hazardous affair. The business was arranged with the usual naval precision. Rats having been caught, the trappers were required to parade with them. An inspecting officer cynically remained until he had seen the rats faithfully destroyed. Then the trappers were able to qualify for their reward. I asked if anyone had thought it worth while to import such desirable quarry but I was answered with a stony and disapproving stare.
‘Atlantic Meeting’, H. V. Morton, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1943.

Four months later, on 7th December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbour and America entered WWII. On 10th December H.M.S. Prince of Wales, along with H.M.S. Repulse, was sunk off Malaya by repeated Japanese aerial attacks. 327 men from Prince of Wales died, including Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach. The fate of the cats is not recorded.

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Force W at Scapa Flow

From ‘Sailor At Sea’ by Vice Admiral Harold Hickling, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1965.

It was in September 1939 that Mr Churchill had been lunching in H.M.S. Southampton lying at Rosyth close to the Forth Bridge. After lunch the Captain took the First Lord onto the quarterdeck for a breath of fresh air. The sirens went and two minutes later a covey of Heinkels put down a pattern of bombs which fortunately near-missed the cruiser and the bridge though they struck a spark in Winston.

‘Decoys, that’s what we want, dummy ships!’ he exclaimed.

It was just the sort of thing that appealed to his quick, imaginative mind, indeed in the First World War he had had a dummy [H.M.S.] Queen Elizabeth built which performed off the Dardanelles and as far as is known achieved precisely nothing*.

On the face of it, it seemed a good idea. Enemy air raids on Rosyth, Scapa [Flow] and other ports were becoming more and more of a menace and our anti-aircraft defences were thin and not very effective; so, argued Winston, why not have decoys to draw the enemy bombs. Too simple. Possibly a bit too simple.

In the upshot three old New Zealand frozen-meat ships, each of about 8,000 tons gross were converted, Pakeha, Waimana and Mamari. They were taken out of mothballs in the Gareloch and sent over to Belfast, arriving at Harland and Wolff’s yard on 25th September, 1939.

Two of the ships were to represent ‘R’ class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Revenge; the third, the aircraft carrier Hermes. Mr. MacClogrie, a Naval Constructor, was in charge of the designs and a very good job he made of them. In addition to the camouflaged upperworks each ship was loaded with some 7,000 tons of stone as ballast, to keep them down as it were, and 17,000 forty-gallon drums for buoyancy, to keep them up. They had it both ways.

dummy-fleet_iwm-a-29655crop

The three ships of the decoy squadron are on the left. The real Home Fleet is in the background on the right. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29655.

The recently-promoted Commodore Hickling took command of this plywood and canvas squadron on 11th April 1940 and entered a slightly sureal world.

About 4 p.m. I clambered up a rope ladder – there were no fancy things like accommodation ladders, and as my feet touched the deck I noticed with approval my broad pendant break at the yardarm. I also noticed a sailor go up to a 15-inch gun turret, open a door in its 12-inch armour-plated side and take out a leg of mutton. The officers, all seven of them, for as Senior officer I had a staff of two, were introduced to me by the First Lieutenant; with one exception they were all Royal Naval Reserve.

My cabin was nothing more than a large rectangular wooden box. Its whitewashed walls reminded me of the waiting room in a French nunnery. There, alas, the resemblance stopped ……. Looking round it all seemed a bit strange, accustomed though I was to being pitchforked into every sort of odd job that no one else could be persuaded to take. I pressed the bell and when my steward entered with a tray of drinks I began to feel more at home.

A few days later he asked his First Lieutenant what their main armament consisted of – “Six .303 rifles, sir,” he replied. “With ammunition, of course.”

dummy-hermes_iwma-29653crop

The decoy aircraft carrier Hermes from above. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29653.

Hickling eventually persuaded his superiors that locking up three hundred officers and men in decoy ships didn’t make sense – “It’s doing them no good, nor the enemy any harm.” The squadron was left to swing around permanent moorings and the crews were dispersed to more useful duties. The ships were transferred to the Ministry of War Transport in 1941 and resumed their lives as cargo carriers.

*The real Queen Elizabeth was part of the Dardanelles campaign but, so far, I’ve found no record of a decoy taking her place. Can anyone help with this?

An aerial drag race

India 1944. New Zealand fighter pilot Vic ‘Ketchil’ Bargh is rested from the fight in Burma and sent on an air gunnery course for Allied pilots.

We went down to Amarda Road (south-west of Calcutta) where we were supposed to be taught air firing and that type of thing. When we were down at this place the Americans came along with a B-25. We were all sitting at a table and the two jokers from the B-25, they said “We’ve got the fastest aeroplane here”, in a loud voice. Nobody said anything. There was a Mosquito there; there was quite a few different varieties of aeroplanes. So the jokers with the Mosquito said they would tail the Americans.

A de Havilland Mosquito takes off at Wings Over Wairarapa 2013, New Zealand.

They went up and got alongside the American, eased him along until he was going flat tack, which was not very fast really. When they reckoned he was flat-out the Mosquito feathered one propeller altogether and poured the coal on the other one and went away on one engine. I don’t know what that Yank thought but they left him behind on one engine.

mosquito-pass

Text transcribed from an interview and printed in Ketchil. A New Zealand pilot’s war in Asia and the Pacific. Neil Francis. Wairarapa Archive, 2005.

Photographs taken at Wings Over Wairarapa airshow 2013.