- Francis, Richard
- Biographies and personal histories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As a junior officer, the author enjoyed a great variety of memorable experiences in a destroyer of the Far East Fleet, including several live firings of torpedoes and A/S weapons.
While I was serving as a junior watchkeeping officer in a Daring Class destroyer, we had an unexpected break from our busy programme in the Far East Fleet, with an emergency docking in Hong Kong. During a deployment to the Indian Ocean for a planned SEATO exercise we had developed a badly leaking stern seal and broke down on one shaft, so after a brief fuelling stop in Colombo, the ship limped back to Singapore Naval Base, only to find all the drydocks committed and unable to put us on the blocks. Naval Headquarters considered our future for a few days and then announced the decision to send us to Hong Kong, for docking in a commercial drydock.
As we expected to be in dockyard hands for about 3 weeks and at a higher rate of LOA than Singapore, the wardroom set about planning to make the best of it. I had a small car in Singapore, from my earlier period spent in the local minesweeping squadron, and my messmates encouraged me to seek the Captain’s permission to take it with us to Hong Kong. This proved to be the easy bit. The CO readily agreed and told me to see the First Lieutenant to ensure it was safely embarked and securely lashed down, starboard side of the torpedo tubes (we had a single set of pentad 21’ tubes, just aft of the funnel. The after set had been removed to allow for extra topweight with the fitting (for – but not with) Seacat short range guided-missile mountings on the after superstructure).
My modest little Mini saloon was all that I possessed in the world, apart from my sword. Naturally, I was keen to explore a method of insuring it against the natural perils of the sea – and the violence of a potential enemy. My Captain’s parting words were: ‘Remember, if we run across the Indonesian Sverdlov (heavy cruiser) on the passage north, your car is the first thing to go over the side – then we will tin-fish him. . . !’ At the first opportunity I drove into Singapore City to the AA office and explained the need to insure my little Mini for the passage to Hong Kong. Drawing up an official form, the Chinese clerk asked me in which hold in HMS D . . . . . the car would be stowed in. ‘Hold?!’ I gasped, ‘The ship does not have any holds – the car will be travelling as deck cargo.’ ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Francis, we do not insure deck cargo.’ Undaunted, the clerk drew up another form ‘We can insure the ship for you?’ Not being quite ready to become a deep sea insurance underwriter, I backed away: ‘No thanks, I’ll take that risk!!’ ‘
The next day the Buffer arranged a dockyard crane, and with a pair of shot mats under the wheels forward and aft my treasured motor was hoisted high over the ship’s roof aerials and deposited gently on the iron deck alongside the torpedo tubes, then pushed close up against the bulkhead in the waist, covered with a tarpaulin and securely lashed down to the deck. Apparently someone else had a similar idea, as another small car, a Citroen 2CV (borrowed from the RM Commando barracks) also came aboard and was lashed down on the port side.
The passage to Hong Kong was pleasantly uneventful. However, in the early morning, before dawn, I received a shake from the bosun’s mate – the Captain wanted to see me on the bridge right away. Expecting a rebuke for perhaps not initialling the deck log for my last watch, I stumbled up to the bridge. The CO seemed to be in a good mood. ‘Ah, there you are, Sub’ he greeted me, ‘I want you to take away the whaler shortly, with a crew from the junior seamen’s mess, and sail into Hong Kong. Come and look at the chart’.
We were fixed about 20 miles out from land. Dawn was not far away. ‘I want to lower the whaler in 20 minutes time. Go and get everything ready’. Fortunately I was the Boats Officer and could put my hand on all the sailing gear, which was piled into the boat by the watch on deck, together with about six boy seamen and a bag lunch apiece from the galley, which had already flashed up for breakfast. As I reported all ready to the Old Man on the bridge he gave me my final instructions: ‘You see that white cliff to the right of ship’s head? Well, don’t go past that – that’s Red China!’
In those days, I and many others had a mortal dread of the Yellow Peril of advancing Communism, so, with those words still ringing in my ears, we slipped the whaler when ready and had the mast and sails up within 10 minutes. My ship disappeared over the horizon. I took stock of our situation and it was all quiet and gentle with an onshore breeze on a slight swell. My crew settled down to enjoy the sail. After an hour or so the duty lookout reported: ‘Warship overtaking us, Sir!’ Looking astern I saw what appeared to be our ship coming up at a fair speed, but from a completely different direction from which she had departed. Through the binoculars I could see that she was flashing us with an Aldis lamp. We had a small battery equivalent in the boats, in a box. ‘What ship – where bound?’ I began to send in Morse, and then recognised her as HMS Duchess, our Captain D (who always gave us a hard time). At this stage I began to experience overload, with binoculars, Aldis, tiller, and trying to keep my balance while concentrating on reading the rapid Morse coming in my direction. Giving up trying to read Captain D’s impatient signal, I began to send just the boat’s sail number: ‘Kilo One – Two – .’ but with a puff of black smoke from her funnels she continued on her way towards Hong Kong, and I wondered what remarks Captain D would pass on to my CO about his lubberly Montagu whaler, when he secured alongside.
The rest of the passage was uneventful and we reached Lei-Mun Pass and the eastern entrance by about midday, polished off our bag meal (and my personal emergency ration of a melting Mars Bar) and finally entered Victoria Basin Naval base at about 1600. We gratefully unrigged the sailing gear and secured to the stern boat boom, then I reported our safe arrival personally to the CO. He was relaxing in the comparative luxury of his day cabin with a cup of tea and invited me to join him. My face was already glowing rosily from exposure to the sun all day, but the cup of tea was welcome and refreshing (in his personal fluted-chinaware – which strictly speaking was designed for flag officers only). ‘Captain D told me you appeared to be in some kind of distress,’ he said benevolently. ‘He could not see anything alarming and his signalman could not read your Morse, Sub,’ he continued ‘so he carried on – and wants to see us all at Divisions and Church on Sunday! I’ve told him that we always follow his lead in everything, but on this occasion we will be docking down at Taikoo, so much regret – unable!!’ He smiled at the thought of his own polite riposte to Captain D. ‘By the way, your car is on the jetty, Sub; the Buffer managed to push it ashore on a couple of planks at high water, which was lucky, as there is no crane on this berth. I’d like you to drive me to my hotel in Central in an hour’s time. Off you go’.
Taikoo Docks were well to the east of the Naval Base (HMS Tamar) and Central district, but was convenient for the ship’s company for shore leave in Wan Chai and the China Fleet Club, with a frequent tram and bus service. We spent a delightful 3 weeks in dock, carrying out machinery repairs, and my boats were painted out beautifully by the dockyard. Finally back alongside, on our own as a private ship (Captain D had long since departed), Jenny’s Side Party gave us a final touch up all over and we just glistened in the sunshine. The ship was immaculate, and the crew completely refreshed. There had been plenty for us to do – range courses over at Stonecutters Island (infested with deadly snakes, but still boasting a Fleet canteen built before WW1), seamen’s advancement boards, a chance to swot up on my studies for my Ocean Navigation ticket, cocktail parties onboard and masses of entertainment ashore in the yacht club, Hong Kong Club and Cricket Club and privately with all the friends we had made. I got to know the place like the back of my hand and even took the car by ferry across to the mainland to explore the New Territories. My car was well used by all in the wardroom, but the 2CV had a serious accident and had retired hurt, which had made the CO realise that its loan had been less than honourable – questions may well be asked on our return to Singapore.
Finally we proceeded back to sea to rejoin the Fleet in Singapore. Jenny’s Side Party gave us a traditional firework farewell from her sampan as we slid out from the Basin as a shower of black soot shot out of the funnels and fell back on our shiny decks. As Special Sea Duty OOW I always left harbour covered in soot, but I felt especially sorry for the Captain’s PO Stwd, who had to immediately wash his soiled sharkskin No. 10s (he only had two sets – I had at least 6 pusser’s issue!). The CO had decided to give us a couple of days work- up in the HK Exercise Areas, culminating in a live warhead firing with our main armament – the torpedoes. He was an A/S specialist and a dedicated destroyer skipper – with frequent ‘Full Ahead’s’ and the occasional ‘Full Astern!’
For the firing, I was well prepared, although I have never experienced such an exercise before. I shared a cabin with the TAS Officer, a morose individual, who was well aware the Captain was watching his every move, and frustrated because the torpedo maintenance had recently been allocated to the WE Ordinance Officer (with whom he did not get on – they hated each other and would not speak to one another). On the bridge, as OOW, I had a grandstand view, promptly responding to orders from the Operations Room, Navigating Officer and the Captain (who was in his element) although our target was just a lump of rock off the China coast, called East Nine Pin Island, which the Royal Navy had tried to demolish with shot and shell since the turn of the century. We worked up to a moderate speed and carried out intricate manoeuvres to simulate closing in on a weaving and hostile enemy. At the back of the bridge the TAS Officer earnestly collected all the preparatory reports from the crew on the torpedo tubes on a primitive sound- powered telephone (the CO had commandeered the TAS Broadcast microphone). ’Gyro angle SET, Sir – Ready to fire!’
The Captain swung the ship round under full helm and watched intently the target come to bear from the bridge pelorus. ‘Fire Torpedo!’ There was a whoossh somewhere down aft and I caught sight of the warhead, which someone had painted a dayglo red, as it splashed into a wave on discharge. We carried on with the swing to port and the CO eased the wheel. Then, to my amazement, the torpedo broke surface a few cables away and began to porpoise back in our direction. ‘Hell’s Bells, it’s run amuck!!’ swore the Captain, and without a pause, ordered:’ Full Ahead – Hard a Port!’ Through our binoculars we could see the torpedo leap in and out of the wave tops, clearly out of control, the red warhead menacingly close at every sighting. ‘Keep your eyes on it’ ordered the Captain, calmly passing down estimated ranges and bearings to the Plot below. We worked up to full power and began to draw ahead, but the tension was electric on the bridge. Finally the torpedo was lost to view and the Captain ordered a reduction in speed, ordering the Sonar Room to carry out an all round HE sweep.
The Sonar team reported the last known range and bearing to the bridge as the torpedo came to the end of its run. ‘Prepare Squid,’ ordered the Captain: ’Full pattern – Outfit HE’. He conned the ship back towards the final position of the errant torpedo. Then ‘Fire Squid!’ We only carried a single mounting aft on the quarterdeck – it was already an obsolete weapon as more modern ships were fitted with the longer range LIMBO double mountings – so a pattern was only three mortar bombs, which fired about 5 cables ahead of the ship. There was a deafening explosion and a remarkable splash up in the air.
As the spray fell back to the surface, streaked with grey from the warheads, the Captain looked up and called out:
‘Chief Yeoman – Signal Pad – TO FLAG OFFICER TWO FAR EAST FLEET, INFO COMHONGKONG – PRIORITY: OPERATIONAL IMMEDIATE –
Para ONE: Rogue warhead torpedo destroyed – in position Latitude . . . North, Longitude . . . East.
Para TWO: No damage – No casualties. Proceeding in accordance with previous orders (PIAWPO) to Singapore. End of Message’.
He turned to me. ‘OOW – Hands fall out. Pipe ‘Up Spirits’. I’m going below for lunch. You have the ship’.
I was impressed. The memory is still quite clear with me forty years later.