- Ward, Kirwan
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This article first appeared in As You Were, a compilation of articles by ex-Navy men and women writing about their wartime experiences, and published by the Australian War Memorial in 1946.
The little corvette, never really ladylike in a seaway, was battling stubbornly through the ground swell. Like an aggressive old harridan at a bargain sale, she struggled up the long, uneasy slopes of the combers, balancing precariously on the crest for a second, and then slithering down to wallow helplessly in the trough below. The smoke stained ensign at the gaff fluttered in a wide jerky arc across the evening sky and dipped suddenly as the bows burrowed deep in the green waters, forcing the screws clear, till the whole ship shuddered in a spasm of futile vibration.
The young midshipman under training closed his eyes tightly, swaying dizzily with the motion, his whole being racked with a soul-destroying nausea, for he was as yet a foreigner in this strange world where the horizon spun and reeled while you watched it, where warm, oily smells seeped into your nostrils, permeating your system and filling your insides with a dreadful, growing unrest.
The ship rolled drunkenly in a beam sea, shipping it green as she altered course, drenching him with an icy cascade, but he clung doggedly to a stanchion, indifferent to every discomfort except the humiliation of the surging sickness within him. He was thinking bitterly how his friends ashore would jeer if they could see him, white-faced and miserable, all dressed up in his smart new uniform; a naval officer, at sea at last, and sick as a land-lubber on a Channel crossing.
At first he’d fought against it, thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his monkey jacket, striding magnificently across the tiny quarterdeck, trying to convince the crew and himself that he was an old hand, slightly bored with the monotony of the offshore patrol. But now, all pretence of dignity and pride had gone whirling away with the wind, all the vague ambitions of his life had suddenly crystallized into a fierce, overwhelming desire to feel the comfort of solid ground beneath his feet again, and to smell the dear, familiar scents of the land. Wearily he opened his eyes, watching with a wan fatalism as the horizon swelled relentlessly, a cold mountain towering to the masthead, then fell away again, out of sight, beneath the foredeck. God, how he hated the sea!
At this moment, the lookout on the foremast lowered his oversized binoculars and sang out, ‘Aircraft! Red one one oh, sir!’
The officer below glanced briefly at the black speck emerging from the cloud base, then crossed the bridge in long strides. A second later, the whole ship resounded to the harsh clamour of the alarm. Before its echoes had died away, the captain came clattering up the steel ladder from his cabin below and, simultaneously, men in grimy singlets and greasy boiler suits came scrambling up from the mess decks, hastily adjusting respirators and tin hats as they ran to their action stations. The aircraft disappeared again into the lowering grey sky, but the hum of its engines persisted like the drone of a mosquito on a summer’s evening.
The midshipman, completely pre-occupied with his own sufferings, watched the activities of his shipmates without interest. He thought it was just an exercise alarm, a dummy run, with a friendly aircraft stooging around, making feint attacks to give the gun crews a work-out and keep everyone on top line.
The whine of the plane was getting nearer now, increasing its volume in a steady crescendo, and despite himself, the boy began watching the Lewis gunner on the port quarter, as he swung his weapon round on its mounting, anxiously following the sound. He was a lean, tough-looking gunner, with anchors and snakes tattooed in vivid red and blues across the broad expanse of his chest. His forefinger was curling round the trigger, tautening, eager.
There was a sudden whirring of evil wings overhead, a huge shadow flicked across the overcast, and a storm of bullets danced like hailstones over the decks, whining viciously as they ricocheted off the unyielding plates.
The port Lewis gun started an angry chatter, stuttered and fell silent as the young gunner toppled slowly from his strap seat, a fearful red flood bubbling up from his chest, obliterating all the tattoo marks with an ugly crimson smear. The two Oerlikons, with the almost mellow thump-thump which is peculiar to them, sent livid tracers streaking out from the wings of the bridge, groping eagerly in the darkening sky for their prey.