Sailing into the unknown

WHEN Antrim man Bob McWhirter joined the Royal Navy in 1935, the world was hurtling inexorably towards catastrophe.

Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party had come to power in Germany two years prior. Resentful of the Allied victory in the First World War - and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles that had stunted Germany’s armed forces - Hitler set about rearming and expanding Germany’s military, in direct violation of the Great War’s peace terms.

All the while, Mussolini’s troops marched into Ethiopia and, in the Far East, Japanese forces were slowly but surely carving out a bloody stake for themselves in Chinese Manchuria.

It was plain to see that fragile peace that followed in the wake of the ‘War to End All Wars’ was soon to be shattered, but few could have fathomed that the conflict on the horizon would quickly spiral into the most devastating war in human history.

Likewise, when Bob McWhirter traded his job at Dunmore Dog Track near Belfast for the King’s shilling and a sailor’s life, he could never have guessed that it would be the beginning of a fifteen-year long career that would pluck him from Parkhall and place him in the midst of the most perilous warzones of the mid-twentieth century.

During his stint with the Royal Navy, McWhirter would serve during the Spanish Civil War, bear witness to pivotal battles of the Second World War, and find himself embroiled in the infamous Yangtze Incident.

Along the way, he would rub shoulders with the likes of Prince Phillip, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Jack Dempsey, and even find himself under the direct command of Lord Louis Mountbatten.

It was whilst undergoing training at Whale Island, off Portsmouth, that McWhirter was discovered to be a proficient seaman gunner and diver.

He emerged as qualified in both domains, and, training complete, his first posting naturally followed. A tour of duty onboard the HMS Hereward, an agile H-class destroyer, beckoned.

Bob and the rest of the Hereward’s crew were tasked with patrolling the Iberian Peninsula upon the outbreak of civil war in Spain. Enforcing an Anglo-French arms blockade intended to prevent German arms and supplies from being smuggled to General Franco’s fascist forces - then battling to overthrow the Spain’s Republican government - the HMS Hereward spent four months prowling Spanish waters in mid-1937 as part of the Mediterranean Fleet’s 2nd Destroyer Flotilla.

Whilst Britain was not a direct belligerent in the conflict, the Hereward’s blockade duty was far from a danger-free posting. A number of the flotilla’s ships succumbed to skirmishes and mines, but Bob managed to come through unscathed.

Remembering his early service in 1995, Bob recalled with notable understatement that ‘it was a hell of a time in all respects’.

In one particularly bizarre episode, McWhirter and his fellow sailors spent one spell of shore leave fraternising with the crew of a German battle cruiser that had been dispatched - in a mission parallel to that of the Hereward - to prevent foreign aid reaching Republican forces.

The German ship in question was the mighty pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee which, only two years later, would go down in history during the Battle of the River Plate off the coast of South America. After a dramatic pursuit across the Atlantic Ocean, the Graf Spee - harried by numerically superior British naval forces - was forced to dock at the port of Montevideo in neutral Uruguay. There, in a move that infuriated Hitler, the ship’s captain, Hans Langsdorff, ordered her to be scuttled before committing suicide.

Bob had been on leave when Germany invaded Poland, igniting the powderkeg for the second time in as many generations.

With startling speed, the lights went out all over Europe as, one by one, ally after ally was snuffed under the Nazi jackboot. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France all fell within one grim six-week period in 1940.

Before long, Britain stood alone, her army plucked from the jaws of defeat at the beaches of Dunkirk.

Spared of the German onslaught - for now - by virtue of the oceans surrounding it, the country’s outlook nonetheless remained bleak. Britain would surely wither on the vine if its precious ocean supply lines were not maintained.

For Bob, the protection of the vital supply convoys would preoccupy the first two years of his wartime service.

He was transferred to the HMS Ramillies, an old dreadnaught built during the First World War, and sent forth into the vast unending horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. As he later told the Guardian, ‘to stick that for two years was terrible’.

“Ships were going down all around us - left, right and centre.”

Over the course of the so-called ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ - in truth a complex campaign fought over the span of the entire war - some 36,200 Allied sailors would be killed alongside 36,000 merchant seamen. During this Herculean effort to keep Britain on her feet, 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships would sink to the ocean floor, picked off at will by packs of German U-boats.

Winston Churchill himself later admitted to feeling more anxious of the outcome of the so-called ‘U-Boat Peril’ than he had been during the aerial Battle of Britain.

During one sortie, a Free French submarine with fifth columnist spies on board was found to be secretly submerging and ‘tin fishing’- or torpedoing - the very ships it was supposed to be escorting. A British telegraphist, or ‘sparker’, soon caught wind of the plot and alerted the Admiralty.

A group of destroyers were quickly dispatched to apprehend the renegade submarine. They dropped depth charges, which intimidated the sub’s crew into resurfacing. However, as Bob remembers, the rogue crew were not going to submit without a fight.

As a British boarding party approached, they lashed out with a burst of small arms fire that claimed yet more casualties.

Another assignment during the Atlantic campaign had the HMS Ramillies participate in ‘Operation Fish’, the transfer of a sizeable portion of the British gold reserve to banks in Canada.

Devised in part to protect the British economy in the event of German invasion - but also to facilitate the purchase of weapons from the Americans - it was ‘just another day in the office’ for the Parkhall man when he and the rest of his crew were ordered to protect a group of Canadian ‘Mounties’ with a hefty consignment of gold bullion.

Amidst the never-ending tension of escorting the Atlantic convoys against an enemy that lurked unseen beneath the waves, Bob took solace in thinking of home and his girlfriend Meta.

When they were finally reunited, he presented her with some most unusual (but, no doubt, most appreciated) gifts that he had stowed away during his time at sea - seven pounds of sugar, ten tins of butter and four pairs of nylons!

After two years on the front lines of the longest naval confrontation in history, the crew of the Ramillies were offered some much-needed respite when they arrived in Iceland and were granted a period of leave.

Impressed by their contribution to date, Winston Churchill personally visited the battleship and recommended that her brave personnel take a well-earned break from the nerve-shredding convoy duties.

Revitalised by this brief reprieve the crew- which, at the time, included the soon-to-be Prince Phillip, serving as a midshipman - set course for Australia, escorting a convoy carrying troops of the Second Australian Imperial Force on their way to face Rommel on the scorched Lybian battlefields of Bardia, Tobruk and Benghazi.

Upon their return, the hardy sailors of the Ramillies were informed that the War Office was looking for volunteers for Combined Operations - a series of top-secret missions carried out by the army, air force and navy.

A series of raids against German occupied Europe was being planned by Lord Mountbatten himself, and Bob put his name forward

Bob and the rest of the volunteers were sent for training in Scotland, and the local man was posted on to a motor launch gunboat as its coxswain.

“It was then that I asked myself, ‘what have I let myself in for here?’ If the convoys were bad, the Combined Operations were said to be worse.”

Whereas the colossal HMS Ramillies had boasted a couplement of 909 sailors when fully crewed, Bob’s new craft was a far more modest affair. The tiny gunboat had a crew of twelve men who all slept together in the same cabin - although Bob, as coxswain, was permitted to share a cabin with the boat’s civilian mechanic.

His Combined Ops career opened with a flurry of operations along the Dutch coast. He and his team sought to interrupt German shipping in the area, a task they achieved with some success.

Bob also worked as a diver on a torpedo boat and was a test pilot for prototype ‘midget’ submarines which were designed to sneak past German harbour defences to attach limpet mines to shops in dock.

The advanced methods of covert warfare being pioneered by Combined Ops in this timeframe did not go unnoticed. When Bob met film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the actor was serving as a US naval liaison officer to Lord Mountbatten. He was so impressed by the cooperative tactics of the navy and the commandos that he was motivated to introduce the US Navy’s ‘Beach Jumper’ programme, whereby elite troops would stage fake amphibious landings to lure enemy attention away from the main bulk of an invasion force. They were utilised to great deceptive effect in Operation Husky, the Allied seaborne invasion of Sicily.

Bob also had an encounter with the former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, who was stationed for a time in a non-combatant role at Newhaven.

One of Bob’s proudest memories, however, was serving under Sir Peter Scott, who led a flotilla of gunboats to naval glory. The Antrim man sailed in a boat by the name of ‘Grey Fox’, whilst Scott led in a craft named ‘Grey Shark.’

The ambition and scope of Combined Operations’ plans grew in tandem with confidence in their methods. On March 28th, 1942, in what has been referred to by historians as ‘the greatest raid of all,’ a joint naval-commando force struck the German occupied port of St Nazaire with support from five RAF squadrons.

The dry dock there was a key target, as its loss would redirect any German ships in need of repairs - such as the leviathan battleship Tirpitz, sister ship of the infamous Bismarck - straight into the teeth of the waiting Royal Navy. The British planned to ram an obsolete destroyer, the HMS Campbelltown, into the dock where it would later be intentionally destroyed. This would render the port’s facilities unusable by the German navy. Meanwhile, a sizeable force of commandos would land from gunboats and wreak havoc upon German coastal positions in the town.

It was a daring plan, and one that succeeded. St Nazaire’s dry dock was knocked out of action for the remaining duration of the war. The cost of victory was steep, nonetheless. Of the 611 men who participated in the St Nazaire Raid, only 228 returned to Britain.

Any sense of triumph was short lived, however, when only a few months later a plan was hatched of even more grandiose scale. In preparation for an eventual cross-channel invasion of France - the famed landings in Normandy two years later - Allied planners set out to test their amphibious tactics by staging a large-scale landing against a defended stretch of coast.

The objective was to take, hold and reinforce a beachhead for a period of time before staging an ordered withdrawal, thus affirming that Allied troops were ready to face the challenge of liberating Western Europe. This live practise for D-Day was to involve 6,050 troops - mostly Canadian, but also including several detachments of British commandos - a regiment of tanks, 74 RAF squadrons and 237 ships. Their destination: Dieppe.

The calamity that befell the landing force only showcased how much the Allies still had to learn before they could even consider embarking upon the real invasion. The Germans, having been warned by French double agents of the likelihood of a landing at Dieppe, were primed and ready.

As the first landing craft reached the shore, bullets ricocheted from their ramps and men were killed before they even set foot on dry land. The ocean ran red with blood as the dead piled up grotesquely on the sand.

Those who survived could only take what cover the gently sloping dunes offered as mortar rounds crashed down and the wounded moaned piteously. 3,623 had been killed, maimed or captured by the time the Allied command called it a day and ordered a retreat.

Several boats were also lost in the attack on Dieppe - but a good friend of Bob’s earned the highest award for gallantry in Britain, the Victoria Cross, for his heroic deeds during the disastrous raid.

Upon the final defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, Bob was demobilised. The intensity of his wartime experiences, however, meant that he faced pronounced difficulty in r-eacclimatising to civilian life. Settling uncomfortably back at home, he took up a job with a local builder. Not surprisingly, this failed to provide the companionship, adventure or money he had grown accustomed to.

The monotony was only broken when he spotted an advert in the evening paper calling on ex-servicemen to join up once again. The ad promised £25 up front for doing so, and a further £100 in return for three years of service. Bob leapt at the opportunity. He had been demobilised for less than ten months when he donned his old uniform and boarded the aircraft carrier HMS Theseus, bound for Australia as a newly reinstated sailor.

It should have been a routine voyage, but there was an unusually high death toll during training flights - and each resulted in a burial at sea with the young pilots sewn up in canvas shrouds and cast into the ocean.

Bob’s pal Flurry Ford was responsible for preparing the dead, but after a string of tragedies he needed an extra set of helping hands, so Bob volunteered. It was difficult work, and even the extra dram on offer could do little to temper the lasting impact of the harrowing sights he saw.

He was relieved when he reached Australia and took up his new post, joining a flotilla charged with patrolling China’s Yangtze River. Among Bob’s new crewmates was 1950s singing star David Whitfield, who he recalls ‘became a great friend’.

However, little did he know, but he was once again sailing headlong into harm’s way.

In 1949, the Yangtze River separated the two warring factions of the China’s all-consuming civil war. The south bank was occupied by Nationalist forces, whilst Mao’s communist People’s Liberation Army stood on the north bank. Both riverbanks were bristling with guns.

On April 29th, the H.M.S Amethyst - one of the ships in Bob’s task force - was hit and grounded by communist shellfire. Over the course of the next three months, several attempts were made by the other ships in the flotilla to silence the shore batteries and snipers targeting the Amethyst and to rescue her beleaguered crew.

They were sitting ducks in the river and, once again, Bob lost many friends. The Amethyst eventually managed to escape under cover of darkness from her predicament, but a passenger ship was mistakenly targeted and fell victim to the PLA’s artillery. In 1957, the ‘Amethyst Incident’ was dramatized in the film ‘Yangtze Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst’- starring none other than Toome’s Richard Todd in the role of Lieutenant Commander John Kerans.

As for Bob and his crewmates, they were eventually relieved and returned to base, only to be redirected to Malaya, which had become a flashpoint of guerrilla activity in the years following World War II.

Bob lived to tell the tale, of course. The only wound he sustained over the course of his fifteen-year military career was a superficial wound to his back.

But, by 1950, his appetite for action had depleted. He had been lucky, but he was all too aware that one day that luck could very potentially run out.

He returned home once again, and spent the next twenty-five years working in public transport. Ironically for a man who had witnessed so much combat, he was eventually forced to retire when he dislocated his neck driving a bus.

Bob married Meta and they had a long and happy life together. Sadly, she died in 1991, but by then they had ten grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

And they all loved stories - and Grandad Bob’s were always the best.

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