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.