Dit of the Week
When the Cold War ended, much to our surprise in Faslane, a Russian submarine off St Kilda, signalled a request for the emergency evacuation of a sailor with appendicitis. Being a relative stranger to casualty evacuation procedures, I immediately consulted the signalling manual and thus discovered Medical Signalese. In this, sentences are abbreviated to five letter groups. For examples:
FECIN is shorthand for - 'Infectious non cot case.'
MEDIC means - 'Medical cot case.'
SURIN means - 'Surgical non cot case.'
RAHOS means - 'Request admission to hospital.'
You will understand therefore that I was surprised when loitering in one of Glasgow's better public lavatories and an inebriated Glaswegian lent over the porcelain partition and whispered confidentially, 'FECIN MEDIC SURIN RAHOS.'
Realising at once that this was medical man, I asked him to stop urinating on my shoes and, following correct communication procedure, asked him to confirm that he was indeed requesting hospital admission for an infectious non cot case, a medical cot case and a surgical non cot case.'
He looked puzzled and repeated, 'FECIN MEDIC SURIN RAHOS!'
As we seemed to be having a decryption problem, I said, 'Parliamo Signalese?'
'Naw,' he replied. 'Parliamo Glasgow - the fuckin' doctor's in the hoos!'
Which just goes to prove that not all Glasgow drunks are Naval doctors.
Craig Robinson contacted me 'out of the blue' as a result of setting up this website. How rewarding.
Sender: Craig Robinson
Sir, I am researching my Grandfather's war and he, like your father, was on Intrepid when she was sunk off Leros. I'm fascinated by the photograph you have of the men on the lifeboats. Do you have any others?
How amazing to make contact with the grandson of one of my father’s old shipmates. Leros was just a name I remembered from my childhood - I was still in my mother’s womb when Intrepid went down. Like most of his generation, Dad did not talk about his wartime experiences but I came to understand that his ship had been sunk there. When my mother passed away, after Dad, I found some scraps of paper she had kept. One was a War Telegram from Dad from Alexandria informing her that he was 'fit and well’; that must have been pure gold dust for her at the time. There were also a couple of letters, heavily censored, referring to my impending arrival.
When I retired from my own career in
the Navy, I decided to visit Leros where I found a British War Graves Commission
cemetery, which contained six graves for Intrepid crew members.
That was sobering. I also discovered the Greek War Museum in Leros where I saw
the photographs of Intrepid sinking of which I took copies. So, no, I have no other photos. It
was even more sobering to look at the photo of Intrepid in
flames and realising that Dad would have been on board when it was taken,
fighting for his life.
On holiday in Crete, I visited the British cemetery at Chania and, by chance, the book of remembrance was open at the page for another of Intrepid’s crew, a Chief Engine Room Artificer; he must have died of his wounds - the engine room took the hit.
Intrepid took 24 hours to capsize and lost only 7-8 men. The Greek destroyer Queen Olga, also at anchor in Lakki Bay, sank almost immediately with the loss of all hands, a national tragedy for the Greeks who hold a remembrance service there every year.
The Intrepid survivors were spirtied away by the Greek Resistance to the Turkish island of Castelorizo from where a Turkish mechant ship took them, hidden in its hold (Turkey was neutral in WW2), to a rendezvous with a Free French destroyer somewhere in the Med. That took them to Beirut whence they travelled overland to Alexandria. I don’t know how they got back to UK, presumably by sea. That too would have been a hazardous journey.
I mention the Intrepid incident in my book, ‘On Her Majesty’s Nuclear Service’, which is due for publication next August (Casemate is the publisher).
I presume you will have googled Intrepid. If you have, you will know that she had an extremely busy war from Norway through Dunkirk to the laying of mines off the German coast to the sinking of the Bismark and onwards to the hell-hole of the Mediterranean. She then took the surrender of the Italian fleet which she escorted to Malta, and finally to her sinking at Leros. RIP. She was badly damaged at Dunkirk and was out of action for the best part of a year. Delighted to have heard from another descendant of Intrepid.
This is wonderful. I'm writing the entire story of my Grandfather's war, week by week, from his being turned away due to his age and spending a year as a fire watcher, through Ganges and (with the help of his war records and stories) his hideous Arctic convoys and his double sinking on Intrepid and then Cam. (He told us there was a third, a ship he visited in harbour which was torpedoed as he stepped on). Suffice to say that he was quickly labelled a 'Jonah'.
Leros has fascinated me. He recalled the initial battle, shooting back (he was a gunner) and swimming in oily burning water. He was quite relaxed about the homeward journey, it sounds awful, but he was very young and probably had no idea where he was. He described the journey as 'boring'. This was typical of him though.
I shan't take up too much of your time, this contact alone has been very special. I hope to get to Leros one day. I'm sure when I've calmed down, I may have a question or two to ask you.
Yours for now
Grandson of Able Seaman Pat 'Spud' Murphy. Visual Signaller and gunner.
My father was an ASDIC operator. (He was a part-time musician in peacetime - a banker by profession - and was drafted into ASDIC because of his sense of pitch). As he was an anti-submarine specialist, I followed in his footsteps but by my time, the best way to catch an enemy submarine was with a nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine. Intrepid was father's second ship. He had previously been in HMS Wanderer, an old WW1 destroyer, on transatlantic convoy duty and was, I know, damned glad to be spared the Arctic convoys. His third ship was the American-built corvette, HMS Seychelles.
By coincidence, the CO of the corvette being built along with Seychelles was Nicholas Monsarrat, author of the wartime classic, The Cruel Sea.
Another coincidence: the CO of Intrepid when she was sunk was a Commander Charles Arthur de Winton Kitcat. I remembered from childhood that one of my father’s Captains had been called Kitcat but did not know in which ship. Thirty-five years later when I was Senior Engineer of the Polaris submarine, HMS Revenge, my Captain had a guest for dinner called Commander Kitcat. It turned out that he was one and the same and so my father was summoned to meet him. Kitcat had been badly wounded in the bombing at Leros and was unable to escape with his crew. Surprisingly, he did not know what had happened to his crew; so my father told him the story. In return, Kitcat explained the operation Intrepid had been engaged in - in wartime, humble members of the crew were not privy to such secrets.
The coincidence continued. Kitcat was visiting Revenge because my Captain’s father had been Kitcat’s Engineer Officer. How about that? My father also trained at Ganges as most sailors did, and his cousin was a Wren Signaller there. He then subjected me to 'a la Ganges’ training as a child. I was an absolute whizzkid at knots and splices!
I never fail to be impressed by what that generation achieved. I was more than happy to be involved in nuclear deterrence. A third world war is the last thing we need.
PS Did you know that Leros was the fictional Navarone in Alistair’s Maclean’s bestseller, the Guns of Navarone?
I am seeing my mother tomorrow and I will photograph a few bits and send them on. You mentioned Kitkat telling your father the reason they arrived in Leros. Obviously the subsequent battle is well documented, but what were Intrepid and Olga doing there? We have no idea, and yet all his other records 'make sense'. I think they were converted for mine laying so was it to prepare the island for Hitler's imminent attack?
I'm aware I am taking up your time so I will perhaps ask you one or two questions after seeing my mother tomorrow and then I will leave you in peace.
Thanks you once again.
My mother was thrilled to read your emails. We went through all my grandfather's bits, most of which was personal stuff (Christmas messages home, his patchy service record, photographs etc) but I thought you'd like to see this. I honestly don't know when this was signed, the fact that it survived the war would suggest it was done after the ship sank. I know he had no kit after that.
We've transcribed all the names we can, but no Thompson that we can see. Maybe you will recognise his hand?
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to
me. It's a peculiar, but wonderful feeling to join some of the dots.
I leave you with one last question which has
bugged his whole family. At some point during the war he had a small Mickey
Mouse tattooed on his leg. Under the sock line. He hated it and didn't want to
talk about it.
I understand that sailors who progressed through a rank before serving the usual amount of time we're know as 'Mickey Mouse [rank]'. He was promoted from Ordinary to Able in very quick time as he learned semaphore and became a visual signaller (years of playing poker gave him a visual brain).
Could he have been 'persuaded' by his older, more experienced, but now lower ranking crew mates to have this done?
I did once wonder whether it was a 'rat' as he'd survived so many sinkings, but it had bug round ears like Mickey. Anyway, with that conundrum I leave you with a photo of the ship.
Gosh, Eric, that has given me quite a lump in my throat. The huddled graves, a wretched metaphor for the conditions on Intrepid and the men's relationship. Perspectives are interesting too.
Intrepid was a 'tough gig' by any measure, but my grandfather came from a pretty brutal family regime and appalling poverty in an East London slum. We know he was desperate to join up and get food and shoes. He recalled 'life on board' fondly.
He talked so much about the food - he really was malnourished before joining up, so even rice and tinned beef was a slap up meal for him. He talked lots about eating eggs. Imagine that. Coming back from war and taking stories through your adult life about 'eggs'. He was quite used to sleeping on the floor and being cold to the bone too. It's no wonder he was singled out for the Arctic runs.
Tough kid, his naivety was a good substitute for bravery, perhaps. How times have changed - thankfully. I live not far from where he trained at Ganges, another 'joining the dots' moment.
How did I find you? Well 'Once upon a time...' (I shall give you a very very potted history) A year ago I rediscovered my grandad's navy penknife. He gave it to me as a child and I used it right through Scouts. (So pleased I didn't lose it!) I found it in a drawer, cleaned some rust off the blade and discovered a date - 43.
"Mum, when did grandad join up?"
"This isn't his bloody knife. Typical, he's palmed me off with someone else's!"
"Well, maybe he got a new one during the war. I wonder what he was doing in 43 that meant he would have got new kit?"
And that's where the research started. Obviously he was reissued with his kit on HMS Medway, in 43, after Intrepid sank. So I spent hours and hours getting his records and finding articles and information together (now trying to turn it into a book - I'm a writer, but work in advertising, so book-length copy terrifies me).
Images were harder to come by. Searching for 'Intrepid' just brought up standard images, but I did find a couple of photos. So I just kept tweaking search terms - particularly when I realised the magnitude of the Olga loss. I found images under 'Olga' which had Intrepid in the background and then my last roll of the dice last week was searching 'Leros 43' and your website came up. I'm so very pleased it did.
If you ever find yourself in the east of England, please drop me a line before you travel. It would be an honour and 'spritual' moment to buy you a glass of beer somewhere.
Thanks so much again for taking the time out of your schedule to write to me and particular thanks for the images. If I ever get to the point of having a manuscript I will be sure to send it your way.
I must at least pretend to do some work now, but I leave you with this exerpt. Thank you so much again.
When I was feeling ‘under pressure’ at University in my 20s, he would take great pleasure in telling me that by my age, he’d left school, had two jobs and fought a war.
If I ever complained about the cold as a small weedy boy, he would wait for a break in the horse racing, lift himself up in his chair and say something like, ‘It’s not cold. You should try chipping ice off the deck in the Arctic.’ Then he’d take a bite of his prawn sandwich and sink back into the relative peace and comfort of the 1970s to check his betting slip.
When I travelled to Thailand, thinking I was on a dashing bold adventure, he delighted in reminding me he had been all over Asia; mostly reducing it to rubble and craters, but he’d been there nonetheless.
However, these insights were frustratingly few and far between and it didn’t seem right to press for more. More did creep out the older he got. Maybe he sensed time running out, but my probing questions in my 20s and 30s got maybe two or three sentence answers rather than the quips of my childhood. But it was still precious little to go on.
Perhaps that is what made me write this book. His silence was a kind of shorthand for the stunned silence the very prospect of war should always be met with. A shorthand I needed to rewrite in full.
We certainly are joining up the dots. I remember my mother telling me how Father had been able to bring real eggs home from Campbeltown. (He was doing anti-submarine training there). Eggs seem to have been a big deal during the war. I guess I’m a generation ahead of you; I can remember the tins of egg powder we used to have in lieu of the real thing.
And again, Scouts; I too used to have my father’s seaman’s knife dangling proudly from my Scout belt - and I knew how to use its marlin spike for splicing. It never occurred to me that it would have been re-issued after the Intrepid sinking.
Did I tell you that I was given my father’s name? I presume because Mother didn’t know if Dad was alive when I was born, five weeks after Intrepid sank.Then he re-appeared large-as-life and I became F G Thomson Junior for the next forty-five years.
I’m not surprised to learn that you are a writer; I thought you may have been an English teacher or something like that; I commented on that to my partner. I am an electrical/nuclear engineer by profession but have been scribbling ever since I retired from the Navy and have just signed a publishing contract for On Her Majesty’s Nuclear Service with Casemate (UK).
It has certainly been a long haul and with much nugatory work, ‘strangling your own children’ as they call it. (The book should be on the streets by next August).
On the ‘spiritual’ theme, I attach two short, relevant extracts from my book (now edited out to reduce the word count); my agent wanted me to concentrate on my own time in submarines and excise the childhood memoirs.
As I may attempt to include them in a second book about wartime childhood, I would be grateful if you don’t further copoy them.
I would very much like to include this ‘spiritual' naval e-mail exchange in the Naval section of my website, with personal family history removed. It is a very human correspondence and I’m always looking for something warm-hearted to add. Would yoou be happy with that?
Could I also post the photo with the signatures. Absolutely no offence taken if you’d rather not.
Thank you so much for your invitation to have a beer down Ganges way. I should also be very pleased to welcome you here if you ever venture this far North.
Eric, this has been a wonderful exchange. I'd be more than happy for you to use our chats on your website in whatever way you see fit. And please do include the photo. Who knows who else may find it and what else this could spark? Don't hesitate to contact me should it prompt any questions.
I shall raise my mid-morning coffee to you and your family at 6 bells. (I was a Sea Scout, the bells are a distant memory, hope I got it right)
Very Many thanks. It has indeed been a most uplifting exchange. We must keep in touch.
The Scouts are a fantastic organisation and I owe them a huge vote of thanks for the background preparation it gave me for my career. I was a (land) Scout; as I like to tell people: they are the junior wing of the SAS. As an adult, I was a Scoutleader for eight years, a Group Chairman, Port Commodore for the Deep Sea Scouts and was a Deep Sea Scout myself when I first joined the Navy. My younger son is currently a Scoutleader and my elder son was some years ago.
Promising to ‘Do My Duty’ as an eight-year-old cub engrained the concept of duty in my soul; the Navy then cemented it in.
It took me about ten years in retirement to learn the trick of putting my own best interests first.
And by the way, my late wife was a Guide Leader. Good old BP. I shall reciprocate by raising my rum glass to you at eight bells.
All the best, Good Hunting, Be Prepared and Look Wide.
The six graves of Intrepid''s crew members in the British War Graves Commission cemetery in Leros.
Survivors in the water. More German planes approaching
MINUTES OF THE 59TH SUBMARINE POOH STEERING GROUP CONVENED AT FASLANE, 2ND MARCH 2008
1. The Chairman thanked everyone for attending and apologised for holding the meeting on the jetty. This was because Leading Writer Tott had gone on long weekend with the keys for the Admin Building. Apologies were also received from the Secretary for calling the meeting on a Sunday, which was due to February having twenty-nine days.
2. The Chairman emphasised the importance of this meeting for although the final design of Submarine Pooh had been agreed, the project was not progressing well.
3. The O-i-C (Desig) of the Royal Naval Pooh School asked if the meeting could address the issue of tidying up the jetty under Any Other Competent Business. The Chairman ruled that this was beyond the scope of the meeting but placed an action on Pooh Auxiliary Services (PAS) to investigate and report at the next meeting. The meeting then adjourned for coffee.
4. On reconvening, the Chairman apologised for the lack of coffee. This was due to the coffee ladies turning up on Saturday.
5. The Group then discussed the problem of Pooh supplies. The Admiralty Underwater Pooh Establishment (AUPE) reported that it had carried out an exhaustive study of the problem. Early indications were that it would not be possible to support a Pooh in all compartments of a submarine. The Pooh Design Authority (PDA) said that when a Pooh had been installed, it was essential that it was fed with the correct supply of honey and that anything less would be unacceptable. The Director General Pooh Supplies (DGPS) was confident that enough honey was available in the supply chain but had not seen any formal definition of Pooh consumption nor of how many Poohs would be installed in each submarine. AUPE had understood that there would be plenty of honey available on board but the problem was getting sufficient quantities of it to Poohs in remote compartments, given the small size of Admiralty honey pots. A Pooh, he said, could not be maintained in the Engine Room, for example. Action was placed on DGPS to investigate the size of submarine honey pots.
6. The Chief Pooh Executive (CPE) confirmed that there was no intention to fit Poohs in Engine Rooms. The Chairman asked for written confirmation of that before the next meeting.
7. The Chairman then asked the meeting to move to the centre of the jetty to allow the crane to pass. AUPE said that, in his view, the meeting had been convened far too close to the crane track and proposed that it be moved to the centre of the tracks before the crane returned. CPE said that this would be impracticable as he was already too close to the rail on the other side. RNPS proposed that under the circumstances, it would be more cost-effective if the meeting extended itself lengthways and formed an oblong between the rails instead of a circular configuration. PAS pointed out that previous experience with oblong configurations showed that people standing upwind could not hear what was being said in the downwind sector. Pooh Trials Unit (PTU) then proposed that a drill should be established in which the person speaking was always in the twelve o'clock position. This could be achieved, he said, by forming a circle and moving the meeting in a clockwise direction until the person speaking was in the upwind position. It was, he added, the principle of the revolver. CPE pointed out that in a revolver, the person in the twelve o'clock position is fired.
8. The Chairman asked the meeting to move back again to allow the crane to return and placed an action on PAS to pursue it and request that it kept its movements to the northern end of the jetty while the meeting was in progress. In view of this action, there was no further need to discuss the formation of a rotating circle and the matter was concluded. The meeting retained its previous formation.
9. CPE reported that there was somebody in the water who had not been there before the crane passed and wondered if it could be someone from the meeting. The Chairman considered this unlikely but placed an action on the Secretary to check numbers against the attendance list.
10. DGPS asked if there was any intention to fit Eeyores in submarines and proposed that if there were, someone else should be responsible. PDA believed that the question of Eeyores was still to be resolved and called for the matter be taken up outside the meeting. AUPE had not been briefed on Eeyores and wondered if it could be an anagram for Eyesore, as he did the Telegraph crossword.
11. The Secretary reported that he had now completed a head count and the AUPE representative was confirmed missing. The Chairman tasked PAS to check the identity of the swimmer on his return from crane chasing but CPE observed that as PAS had a broken leg, the crane was travelling faster than he and the action should be placed on someone else. In agreeing, the Chairman actioned DGPS to conduct a study.
12. The final item on the agenda was to set the date for Pooh sea trials but before a decision could be taken, PDA reported that it had begun to snow and requested that the meeting move under the crane for shelter. This was agreed unanimously.
13. Before opening his closing remarks, the Chairman acknowledged a request from the foreman of the Jetty Party to move the meeting to the other side of the crane to allow access for a sewage tanker, emphasising that this was for an urgent collection and not a delivery.
14. In closing the meeting, the Chairman thanked everyone for attending, noting that PAS, PDA and DGPS had already left for the airport and that AUPE was still in the water. He asked the Secretary to record his thanks to them via the minutes.
15. The date of the next meeting was set for 1 April.
D. Fence-Cutts, Secretary
A young sailor on a public relations visit to his home town was asked to draw the raffle at a charity lunch. When he announced to a dismayed audience that the winner had won a 'diving suit', the Master of Ceremonies leant over his shoulder and explained that it was pronounced 'divan suite'.
Tip for Submariners
If you are thinking of going outside, take an aqualung.