Michael (Mike) Timothy Hickie had an extraordinary naval career in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy extending from 1936 to 1983; with a two year gap, this spans forty-five years of naval service. He commanded a number of RN submarines and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. We were recently pleased to receive a copy of his memoirs. Mike, now a sprightly 95 year old widower, lives in Sydney and says this extract from his memoirs passes muster. Mike Hickie joined the Royal Navy in 1936 at 13 years of age, when he entered the Dartmouth Naval College. After passing out as a Midshipman in April 1940 at age 17 he joined his first ship, the famous old battlecruiser HMS Repulse. A little over a year later Repulsewas sunk by the Japanese prior to the fall of Singapore, but Mike had left her beforehand.
I had now completed my Midshipman’s time by the end of 1941 and after two weeks leave returned to Portsmouth to do my Sub-Lieutenant courses, which included gunnery, torpedos, signals, navigation and ship construction. I qualified and volunteered for submarines, reporting to HMS Elfin,the Submarine Training Base at Blyth in Northumberland, in May 1942. The submarine course lasted about two months and was very concentrated, including several sea days in a submarine.
In Elfin, after twenty months in various ships’ gunrooms,we each had the luxury of our own cabin and for the first time had the company of Wrens involved in the lectures we attended, and other Wrens served in the wardroom as stewards. What better start to a young man’s day than being woken by a Wren carrying a cup of tea.
I completed my course and qualified for submarines in July 1942, sailing from Portsmouth as a spare hand in the submarine HMS P51en route to the Mediterranean to join my first submarine appointment in HMS Ursula.On arrival at Gibraltar, because of the Allied invasion of Algeria and Morocco, my appointment was delayed. Accordingly I joined the S-class submarineP222 additional while she was deployed for about three weeks on patrol off the French coast. Its mission was to attack French (Vichy) ships sailing to intervene in the war now spreading to North Africa. After three weeks no Vichy ships appeared so we returned to Gibraltar where I left P222;sadly on her very next patrol this fine submarine was lost with all hands.
Submarine Living Arrangements
Algiers had been occupied by the Allies in late October 1942. Here I joined HMS Ursula as Navigating Officer. The captain was Lieutenant Barclay Lakin, who had already achieved several successful patrols against German and Italian targets. Before describing my time in Ursula I will now illustrate living arrangements in our submarines at this time.
Flushing toilets while dived
In these WWII boats toilets were only flushed at night because, by day, the possibility existed of the discharge being seen by enemy aircraft. The captain could approve a daylight flush if he was satisfied no aircraft were in the vicinity.
In boats these were fairly basic. Most officers and crew had bunks but some slept in hammocks in the torpedo loading bay. If there were more men than bunks, then you had to ‘hot bunk’. The captain always retained his own bunk and in larger submarines had his own cabin, but not the U-class where his bunk was in the wardroom. The other two bunks were shared by three officers. The engineer in a U-class was a CPO who slept in the Engine Room Artificers Mess. If you had a passenger someone slept on a couch around the wardroom table.
The Sailors Messes
All non-commissioned ranks shared four messes, one for five or six Engine Room Artificers, one for all other Chief and Petty Officers, one for junior engine room personnel (situated aft of the engine room) and one for all other Leading and Able ranks right forward. If there were more sailors than bunks or hammocks, then hot bunking was needed.
One tank in the boat contained all the fresh water needed for drinking, washing and cooking. In small submarines such as the U-class this water provided the total needs of every man for over three weeks at a usage rate of one gallon per man per day. Water distillers were not provided in this class. For laundry we used sea water in a hand basin or bucket. I kept clean linen under my pillow at the start of a patrol, and put it under my feet when dirty, ending the patrol with nothing under the pillow and a dirty pile under my feet.
Every boat had a qualified chef who was king of the galley and produced meals for everyone onboard. The food was acceptably agreeable and submarines in wartime did benefit from extras such as fruit, fruit juice and honey. When baking bread in tropical seas the chef would contribute some sweets. On long patrols considerable space had to be found for extra food stores which were stowed on the deck of all passageways and open spaces, but not in the control room.
Submarine complements and length of patrols
The average complement of different classes of submarines was: U-class 32, S-class 48 and T-class 63. Numbers were often swollen by naval passengers, experts, trainees and Special Forces, the latter carrying out night-time attacks on ships and installations in enemy ports.
Patrols varied according to the size of the boats with U-class limited to 3½ weeks, S-class up to 5 weeks and T-class up to 8 weeks.
A few days after joining Ursula in Algiers we sailed for a brief work-up, then on 20 December 1942 sailed on patrol against German and Italian shipping between Naples and North Africa with special emphasis on stopping reinforcements to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Our first patrol was off Maritimo Island, just northwest of Sicily, close to the shipping route from Naples to Tunis. At periscope depth on Christmas Day all was observed to be quiet on the surface and we then dived to a safe depth.
After dark Ursula surfaced and we had a hot Christmas dinner consisting of pork chops, apple sauce, roast and boiled potatoes, swede, sprouts, carrots, stuffing and crackling, followed by a dessert of spotted dick with custard.
On 28 December, after a night on the surface charging batteries and just before dawn, we dived when a darkened ship was sighted on an approaching course. The Captain decided to attack from periscope depth with the aid of moonlight and ordered ‘Action Stations’.
I was at the chart table plotting enemy course and speed from sonar and periscope observations. The target turned out to be Odysseus,a large troopship escorted by two destroyers. Periscopes were usually considered pretty useless at night but on this occasion we had bright moonlight, a calm sea and good visibility.
We were approximately three miles ahead of the ships when we dived and probably had between eight and fifteen minutes depending on their speed and whether they zigzagged before being at a range when we could fire our torpedoes. The Captain ordered ‘Stand By’ and set the periscope at the correct angle ahead and when the target entered the periscope view he ordered ‘Fire One’ then at predetermined intervals ‘Fire Two’ and finally ‘Fire Three’. With all three torpedos reported running we submerged to ninety feet and observed ‘Silent Routine’. Three explosions followed and then all was quiet. The target propellers had stopped and as the sound of the escorts did not threaten the submarine we returned to periscope depth. Here the target was seen to be sinking and the escorting destroyers picking up survivors. Course was then made to clear the area.
Two days later, in the early hours of the morning of 30 December, a convoy was sighted comprising three large troopships, escorted by four destroyers. Ursuladived and started a moonlight attack intending to fire torpedos from periscope depth. We had to go deep to avoid the screening destroyers, and on return to periscope depth there was a problem with the trim which delayed the opportunity to sight the convoy. The Captain ordered ‘Flood Q’ (a quick diving tank giving negative buoyancy) to the sound of propellers overhead and a crunching bang with our boat rolling to starboard, then righting herself before going down deep.
We had rammed ourselves but thankfully the enemy did not realise it. As the sound of the convoy faded into the distance we surfaced, although neither periscope could be used or moved up or down. It was found that the conning tower hatch could not be opened more than a couple of inches. With daylight imminent on the surface we would be a sitting duck, so we went deep again to consider our options.
We later surfaced and the engine room hatch was opened. This hatch is close to the waterline and cannot be shut quickly. However it provided access for a working party sent to clear the chaos above. Both badly bent periscopes were secured out of the way of the conning tower hatch but it could still not be opened. With emergency repairs completed we dived again and returned to Algiers via the surface at night and dived during the day, taking us six days to make the return passage. The verdict on reaching Algiers was that we must return to England for permanent repairs. This we did arriving back in Portsmouth in February 1943 when I went on leave and later joined the T-class boat HMS Truant,then refitting on the Clyde.
Further Submarine Postings
Our depot ship on the Clyde was HMS Forth and regular boat trips were made between her and Truant,then in a floating dock on the Holy Loch. The coxswain of the boat was invariably the same good looking Wren and after a hesitant start we arranged to meet one weekend. Although I did not know it at the time she had had more than her fair share of submarine experiences.
This was my introduction to Patricia Traunter who was born in the Argentine where her father was in business. When Pat was 17 she wanted to support the British war effort and while her family was not keen she eventually persuaded them to let her go. The British Consulate arranged passage for her to leave Buenos Aires in June 1942 in the passenger/cargo ship Avila Starbound for Liverpool, where Pat would join the Wrens.
In the early evening on 4 July when north of the Azores Avila Star was sailing independently when she was torpedoed and sunk by U-201. Many of the passengers, including Pat, were dancing when the torpedo struck and were in evening dress when they were bundled into lifeboats. Pat was in a lifeboat for three weeks in mid-Atlantic where eight of the thirty-nine aboard died of exhaustion. In total 45 crew and 17 passengers were lost in this attack. They were eventually rescued by a Portuguese sloop and taken to Lisbon where the survivors were hospitalised before being flown to England. Pat eventually joined the Wrens later in 1942.
Truant was involved in innumerable attacking operations for ‘maky-learnie’ officers undergoing training as part of the submarine commanding officers’ qualifying course. But there was enough free time for Pat and me to become engaged and married in January 1944.
In June 1944 I was appointed First Lieutenant of HMS Taciturn, then fitting out at Barrow-in-Furness, and later that year we sailed for Fremantle to join the 6th Submarine Flotilla based there. Patrolling from Fremantle we operated into the Java Sea and extending to the coast of Malaya. Starting in May 1945, our longest patrol was 51 days. Off Surabaya we sank an old Dutch submarine which had been commandeered by the Japanese.
We were also hunted and suffered a depth charge attack by two Japanese destroyers. But our worst incident was yet to come; when on the surface at night north of Singapore there were many fishing boats around, then as it became lighter I noticed a larger shape which then disappeared. I called the Captain to report a possible enemy submarine but before he arrived in the bridge bubbles were seen from an incoming torpedo, I went hard to starboard to comb the track and then dived. We went to silent routine when we heard another torpedo passing overhead. We remained deep for several hours before it was judged safe to resume our patrol. This action contributed to my award of the Distinguished Service Cross.
After returning to Fremantle we had a few more patrols into the Java Sea. Two sad events occurred near us. Another boat, HMS Stubborn, put a boarding party on a small but suspicious sailing ship which tacked away into shallow water where the submarine could not follow. The three man boarding party was never heard from again, presumed killed. The following day, only three days before the war ended, USS Bullhead, an American submarine also working out of Fremantle and occupying an adjacent patrol area, was sunk by Japanese aircraft with the loss of all her 83 crew. It was then our turn to be attacked by a Japanese aircraft but we dived in time to avoid damage. On the day after the war ended we returned safely to Fremantle.
After leaving Taciturn in November 1945 I served in another two boats before undertaking the infamous ‘Perisher’ in December 1948, qualifying me for submarine command. Amazingly my first command was my first boat, the goodly ship Ursula, then being returned from loan to the Russian Navy. Further commands were to another three submarines, HM Ships Sirdar, Amphion and TallyHo. On retiring from the Royal Navy in 1966 I transferred to the RAN, and with my wife and our two children arrived in Sydney in May 1966. After a brief stint at HMAS Penguin, I was posted as First Lieutenant of HMAS Sydney and made three voyages on the ‘Vung Tau Ferry’. Further postings were mainly as Executive Officer of both HMA Ships Platypus and Penguin before finally hanging up my sea boots in October 1983.