Peter Shaw - War Memories
I am Peter Shaw and I live in a house called Cordwainers which may surprise some people as there are those who don`t know what a cordwainer is. It is an old name for a shoe-maker. We have always called our houses, wherever we have lived, Cordwainers. There is still in existance in London a cordwainer`s technical college. They don`t really teach the handcraft like they used to but they do a lot of shoe design and attache cases, but it is still there. I was born in Northampton, the home of shoes.
I was brought up and I learned my trade there. My father was on his own as an orthopaedic shoe maker. I went to the technical college and learned as much as I could to get my City and Guilds diploma and all the usual things one did in those days. I worked for my father until the war came along and I was obviously going to be conscripted. If you wanted to have a choice as to which service you joined you had to volunteer. A few months before my call-up I volunteered and I went into the Navy. I don`t know why I chose the Navy. There is no history of sailors in the family, although my father was in the Royal Naval Division in the First World War.
They were sailors and had naval badges but they were in khaki and to all extent they were just another regiment and fought in France. I think it was one of Churchill`s brain waves. When that war finished, it was all disbanded. I just thought if I have to go, I`ll go in the Navy. I don`t think it was the uniform. I didn`t want to go into the Army and I had no ambitions to fly. I had been in the Scouts all my young life and got interested in signals and that is the branch I went into in the Navy, the signals. I started off at Plymouth at the Signals School down there which was quite hectic. Apparently in peace time the course took about two and a half years but things were a bit desperate when I went in and we only had six months training.
I think there were about 30 of us in my particular intake and we had severe tests at the end of every week and if you didn`t pass, you were gone into another branch of the Navy. This was in 1942. Out of the original thirty, I think about nine of us finished the course. We all split up then and went off to our various ships. My great friend that I made whilst I was there I only saw once just before D-Day. We chummed up again after all that time and were best friends ever since. I was his best man at his wedding but unfortunately he couldn`t make my wedding. Just after the war my wife, Bobbie, and I used to see Ron and Eileen frequently. Then came a gap owing to both families having children Later when our birds had flown the nest, all four of us used to go on holiday together. Since Ron died about ten years ago and after I lost Robbie some eight years ago, Eileen and I have become very close and meet up regularly.
My first ship was a frigate, American-built. We went in a troop ship to Boston to pick her up. She was all welded, not riveted as it would have if it had been built in Britain. We were based in Belfast and she was called the Mounsey. The Navy has to have their ships in classes, you always have to have a class. We were one of the Captain Class frigates, all named after Nelson`s captains. It appears there was a Captain Mounsey in those days and she was named after him. In my job as a signalman I used lamps, flags that you wave and flags that you hoist and wireless signals and all the lot. It was fine from my point of view . I didn`t realise it until I was talking to a chap I met at a reunion a couple of years ago and he said ` We never really knew where we were or what we were doing did we ?` Then I realised how lucky I`d been because I knew before anybody where we were and what was likely to happen.
We did numerous convoy escorting duties across the Atlantic and we did several sallies into the South Atlantic but we were escorting a small aircraft carrier this time. Somebody had had the bright idea that instead of waiting for the U-boats to attack the convoys, we would go out and look for them. So that`s what we did which caused a lot of consternation. We had some success but it is a big place, the South Atlantic. You can easily get misunderstood out there. The planes used to take off from the carrier, if the weather was nice. If they sighted a U-boat we would rush up and try to sink it. In the fullness of time, it was decided that we should go and join the Russian Convoys. That was no picnic but it was quite an experience. We were torpedoed about seven miles off Murmansk by the U295 firing a GNAT, which was an acoustic torpedo which homed in on a ship`s propellers. We`d already escorted the convoy into the Kola inlet which is so wide at its mouth you can`t see the banks on either side. It gradually gets narrower as you go up the Kola river until you reach Murmansk.
We`d left Murmansk the day before whilst the convoy, which had discharged its cargo, was forming up into ranks for the return journey. This was Convoy RA61. All convoys outward bound to Russia were RA and a number and those homeward bound were JW and a number. We were preparing to mount a protective screen outside the entry to the Kola inlet. That`s where we got torpedoed. I was fortunate. I didn`t even get my feet wet. If you did in those waters you did not last very long. There quite a lot of fellows killed. If the ship had been made in Britain, a riveted ship, I would not be here now. Because it was welded it had that bit of flexibility. In fact in a rough sea, if you got down and looked along the deck you could see it waving up and down. So the torpedo just came in one side of the ship, blew up and went out the other side.
The Russians were never very welcoming in spite of the fact the only reason we were there was to take supplies up to them and they wouldn`t send a tug out to help us. They would not come outside the reaches of the Kola inlet, it was a bit too dangerous out there. We were towed in to a place called Poliarnoe which is the first port as you come in by one of our escort flotilla which then had to hurry back to catch the convoy up. We tied up alongside at Poliarnoe and we then discovered what the Russians thought of us because you know you sometimes see an alsation on a long wire with a lead so that it can patrol up and down? Well, they put a bear on this wire so that we shouldn`t get ashore. This bear was pretty hungry. I was actually on the bridge looking down and I saw this bear. Then I noticed one of the lads go down below and come back up with a chunk of bully beef and chuck it over. It is silly how these things stick in your mind but I timed it and it took seven and a half minutes and we had this bear eating out of our hands. So they took it away and replaced it with a couple of men with rifles.
The ship was towed into floating dry dock which we had taken up there previously to give to the Russians. Because it was a welded ship they could weld patches on both sides but they had some false starts. When they decided to float the dock, the water was coming inside as much as it was outside. They`d left a bit unwelded! In this dry dock in front of us were two American PT boats, like Kennedy was on. We call them motor-torpedo boats. They had blocks at the bows so that if you were damaged by the sea, you could take the block out and replace it. That`s what they were in for. We were talking to some Russian sailors on them. They had been to the States to pick these up, and they`d brought them across the Atlantic to Londonderry - which they thought was in England - and then joined one of the convoys to Russia. They had a smattering of English and by the time we had been there for a bit we`d picked up some Russian, and there was a sort of sailors` language, so we could communicate. I asked one if he was looking forward to his leave and he said, ` Oh I shan`t be going on leave. It wouldn`t be fair would it?
Well, I know what it is like in America and in England and it wouldn`t be fair for me to go and tell my parents what the West is like`. He was serious. Much later I understood why the Russians kept all those divisions in Eastern Europe for so long. It was because they didn`t want them to go home and tell what life was like in the West. I know that things have changed now. Somebody said to me that if we had gone back to Belfast and we couldn`t go home on leave because it wouldn`t be fair now we knew what life was like in Russia, dear oh dear! there would have been a riot. Meanwhile, those who were injured were put into a hospital which was run by the British and American Navies but the Russian staff treated us terribly, they really did. I think they had been told that everyone from the West was a capitalist. This was the far north of Russia and the people there were starving. Now if you are starving and somebody comes along with a lorry and gives you a bowl of soup and a hunk of black bread, twice a day, you would think he is a good lad. You don`t know that just down the road is a fellow eating steak and chips and they made sure you didn`t get to know. They didn`t want us to fraternise. That`s why they put the bear on. I was up there for five and a half months.
I had burst eardrums and a bit of damage to my hand. Eventually we brought the ship back home. We`d had to remove the ammunition from her before we put her in the dock, so we sailed back as a protected ship in the convoy. If we had fired a gun it would have blown all those plates off the sides. We came back to Belfast and she went into Harland and Wolfe where they made a better job of it. Just before D-Day, they pulled all the escorts in from the Atlantic and the Russian runs which we`d been on a lot. We all congregated in Moelfre Bay off Anglesey and then about six days before the invasion we were sent off a few at a time to patrol up and down the landing beaches to clear them of E-boats and U-boats as well. We pulled back as the invasion fleet came along and before the landing craft went in. We went back into Plymouth and I left the ship there. After D-Day, the Mounsey was deemed not suitable for hot climates and I was sent out to join a destroyer in the Far East so I finished the war out there. I was on the Devonshire which after being on a small ship it was like being in a floating barracks doing the same regular things each day. I did the same sort of work, signalling only now we were a fleet destroyer so we were escorting bigger ships.
Small ships escort bigger ships but you have bigger ships to escort the really big ships. You know, like fleas. We saw some action but not so much as the war was coming to a close up there. We went to Tokyo and set up a base at Kure. The Japanese were extremely subdued at that time, you can understand it. When we were in Kure, we got the opportunity to go and see Hiroshima very shortly after they had dropped the bomb. We thought that this was something we must go and see. The bomb was on a parachute and it went off over what had obviously been an hotel. Before the war hotels had a big column covered on all sides with tiles, ornamental columns. Obviously these had been blown up and there were these tiles lying about all over the place so I picked a handful up and put them in my pocket as souvenirs. Some got lost but I finished up with several of them.
In the 1960s, they started the Civil Defence. It was no longer the ARP (Air Raid Precautions). My wife, Bobbie, was interested in this so she was invited to take an instructor`s course. One day she said that they were going to have a geiger counter next time and they had been asked to take something to test, something like a luminous wrist watch or alarm clock. I said, `I can put my hand on some of those tiles`. She took these tiles along and admittedly it was only a training geiger counter but it went off the scale with these things and all the tiles were confiscated. They must have been lethal when I picked them up but I had carried them round all the time. Radio-activity is supposed to have very lethal effects on gentlemen . One thing is you lose all your hair and the other thing is that you become sterile. Well, I`ve got a beard and some hair left, and three daughters.
This brings me to one of the things that I feel quite strongly about. People get all up in arms about dropping the atom bomb, how wicked it was and how we should never have done it. All I can say is that if they hadn`t dropped those bombs I, and thousands of other people would not be here now, because the Japanese would never have surrendered. They were too indoctrinated for that. The fighting would have gone on forever and thousands of people on Before we went back to Sydney we went to Hongkong. We were one of the first ships into Hongkong. At that time they were having trouble with the shipping coming in. Chinese pirates were attacking them. These pirates now of course are the government, because they were the communists. What was the government has since been pushed off to Formosa or whatever they call it now. We were sent off to chase these pirates. They were in motorised junks and they could nip around a bit and they used to hide in the little islands. There were lots of these islands about and we came across this little island and there was obviously some inhabitants there so the skipper decided we would send a landing party ashore. I went with this landing party and we found three or possibly four kamikaze pilots, the ones who committed suicide by deliberately crashing their planes onto enemy ships, usually American ships. It transpired that when you qualified as a kamikaze pilot , and all you had to do was to be able to get the thing off the ground and smash it into something, you never landed it, you just smashed it in. As soon as they had finished their training, their parents were notified that they had died in the glorious service of the emperor. They were finished you see, their life was over.both sides would have been killed.
But the war had finished before these guys were called upon to do this job. They all committed the ritual suicide when we arrived. Their relatives had all been told that they were dead. We were sent into Singapore to collect the Prisoners of War from Changi jail and to take them to Australia. They were in a terrible state, emaciated and very weak. The captain cleared the second deck for them and we were ordered that in no circumstances were we to give them anything to eat. A special diet was prepared for them to being them gently back to health. Too much food could kill them. Indeed, some of them did not make it to Sydney. They were too far gone. At some time I left the ship in Sydney and went into barracks. That`s when I found out I spoke with a accent. I never thought that I had an accent at all. I went into this barracks which was like a huge Nissen hut with a row of lockers down the middle, you could walk either side. I walked down one side looking for an empty locker to put all my gear in.
I heard two or three fellows talking on the other side of the lockers. I thought, ` That sounds familiar!` So when I had put my gear away, I walked round to see who it was. It was a couple of chaps I had never seen before, and I said, ` I`m sorry but I thought I recognised your voice`. It turned out that the one who was talking came from between Northampton and Rugby. So I then realised that he had an accent from that part of the world, and that if I had recognised his, he must have recognised mine. So then I realised I had got a Northampton accent. Anyway, eventually the war ended. I had a very nice time when the war had finished. We were based in Sydney so we used to come down from Japan to Sydney. By this time the destroyer I was on was a Battle Class destroyer named after different battles. The senior ship of the flotilla was called Trafalgar of course. The skipper of that ship always insisted that the pronunciation was Traff -al-gar. I was on the Hogue. I`d never heard of the Battle of the Hogue but it appears there was one.
Now that the war was over, they didn`t know what to do with us so they adopted the old pre-war Navy idea of showing the flag. So we went north from Sydney and we stopped in at Newcastle and Brisbane and Cairns and Townsville and Darwin , in fact all round Australia. Everybody was very happy and they put on parties for us. I put on three stone and drank huge quantities of Australian beer and had a rollicking time. Anyway, after the war I came back to Northampton. I was tempted to stay in Australia because they were wanting people to emigrate and we could have had in cash the cost of the trip home and got demobbed in Australia. But I hadn`t seen my parents for some time so I came home and settled down and that`s it. I had been in the Navy for four and a half years.
I never considered staying in the Navy because I had an intimation of peacetime service when, the first time we sailed into Tokyo Bay, the skipper of the destroyer I was on was sweating on his fourth ring, to become a full captain. He had this uniform hanging up in his wardrobe in his cabin with the stripe already on. I had very strict instructions that as soon as I got confirmation by a wireless signal I was to wake him up, whatever time of day or night he must know. It did come through before we got into Tokyo Bay and before we entered harbour, he had the lads up top chipping off the camouflage paint off the binnacles and polishing the brass to try to get it as near peacetime rig as he could get it. Then he could be up there with his four-rings on his arm. Stay in? No way, I thought.
I came back and I worked with my father initially in Northampton and got back into the swing of things. He was getting older and he wanted to call it a day. He had always written articles for the trade press and he wanted to do more of that. We had always done hand-sewn orthopaedic work, but I followed up an opportunity in Wellingborough where I ran a large mass-production shoe factory. I did this for several years but I didn`t like the mass-production side of it and I didn`t like the pressure to make money and not make shoes. I got pretty fed-up with this and I remember coming home one evening and saying to Bobbie, ` In the trade magazine about a fortnight ago there was an advertisement for an instructor at a college for disabled boys somewhere down in Hampshire. I think I`ll dig it out.` So I dug it out, filled in an application, went for an interview and got the job.
So we moved down to Hampshire. My salary dropped by about a half, but there was a completely different atmosphere. I had a lot more job satisfaction teaching shoe-making. Also from a selfish point of view, I had a six-week summer holiday whilst my kiddies were little. After about three years I became a house-master and we moved into the college. I always used to reckon that I had seventy sons and three daughters by this time. I was there about fifteen years altogether I suppose. When I first went there the boys in my workshop were all ex-polios. So in whatever way they had been handicapped by their illness, I could think up ways and means of inventing funny shaped tools and benches for them to sit at to learn to earn their living. However as time went on and the Salk vaccine came out, polio cases became fewer and fewer. Now we had boys who were multi-handicapped and were not physically capable of using tools and working. Also we were getting more and more haemophiliacs and we had quite an intake of boys affected by thalidomide drug when that was around. The number of boys in my workshop went down and the job that I went there to do was no longer there.
I enjoyed being house master but that was a secondary thing. We weighed up the pros and cons and decided to leave the college. Everything was very amicable. So for the last twenty years of my working life I ran a small outfit with my wife making orthopaedic shoes and getting a lot of fun out of it. We were still in Hampshire, half way between Farnham and Petersfield. I did work for various hospitals including Bath Hospital or the Mineral Water Hospital, or to give it its full title, the Royal National Hospital For Rheumatic Diseases, which I would visit once a month and take orders, fit shoes on half-made and deliver them the next time round. I had a Christmas card from a lady who lived down near Portsea whose husband has been dead for a long time but she still sends me a card. Her husband was born with congenital foot defects and all his life he had had to have special shoes made for him. They used to be made by a firm which had better remain nameless in Birmingham. They were made on a vast scale. Every year it was time for another pair of shoes and they would jut arrive through the post.
It was ridiculous as feet change tremendously as you get older and he told me that each time it took him about three weeks trying to get these shoes on. Each night he would pull them on a bit further and a bit further and then they would hurt so he`d try again the next night until eventually he got them on. Then he had to, what he called, break them in. It was just horrendous. That was how it used to be. But when I came along, I was the man who saw him, measured him and made the last and the shoes. I have had such arguments with the Ministry of Health because we set up a scheme for existing craftsmen to teach apprentices and we produced all these brochures to help them through the Industrial Training Board. The department could not see any sense in all of this. They used to want one large firm in England, one in Scotland and one in Ireland producing all the appliances. I told them that they were not talking real but they couldn`t see it.
In Germany, which has roughly the same population as this country, there are something like two thousand orthopaedic shoe-makers in small units, perhaps one master shoemaker and a couple of apprentices working for him, doing exactly what Bobbie and I did, on a one-to-one basis. They still go on in Germany producing wonderful orthopaedic work, whereas we are getting worse and worse here. I only know now of two other men, possibly three, who can do what I used to do, seeing the process from beginning to end, because it was been so split up. If you go to Grantham Hospital now whether you want leg irons, a cervical collar or a corset, anything to do with orthopaedic equipment, One man called an orthotist will visit you and send the measurement to different factories. That`s what you get now. There very few what I call shoemakers today. The time came to retire. Bobbie had come from Yorkshire and we always said that when we retired we would go and live in Yorkshire. By this time my father had died and we had my mother living with us so we decided to get a rather biggish bungalow so that mother could have her own rooms. We started looking round. Whilst we had been at the college, we had got into caravaning because with a six-week summer holiday you could not afford to stay in a hotel for six weeks but you could in a caravan. We had spent a lot of time up in Yorkshire so we started inquiring.
I think we must have come across all the rogues in Yorkshire trying to sell us properties. For some reason or another, three suitable property deals had fallen through, the last property I feel sure had been repossessed by a building society and the manager of the local building society wanted it for his son or his nephew or his friend. By the time you had paid for three or four surveys and solicitors` fees the costs go up and up, and with the obstacles being put in our way, we decided to take a long week-end and go up there and sort it out, and if we couldn`t sort it out we would call it a day. Cora was living here and so on the way up we called in to see daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, who said,` Why do you want to go and live in Yorkshire? There`s a nice bungalow round the back here`. We said that if we couldn`t sort out the Yorkshire problems, we take a look at it on the way back. We came and walked in this bungalow and Bobbie took one look through the window and said,` This will do us`. It had been built for about four years but never completed. The kitchen was fitted but there were no doors or anything like that. So we moved to Colsterworth. I have been here about ten years now.
Unfortunately, Bobbie became ill and things went from bad to worse, and I have been on my own for about eight years now, my mother having died last year aged one hundred and six. I have enjoyed my life really. I consider myself a lucky man. I had a wonderful wife, three fabulous daughters and I saw the world at the Government`s expense. The only thing was that you spent far too long in places you didn`t like and far too little at the others. But I would still go in the Navy. I still belong to the RNA in Grantham and I still belong to the Russian Convoy Club that meets once every two months in Lincoln. When the tragic accident to the Russian submarine Kurtz happened when the sub and the entire crew was lost, our club along with branches in other parts of the country, collected some thousands of pounds to show our sympathy and to help the families./p>
The Foreign office was approached and we were informed that they would transfer the money for us at cost of 55%! We were horrified and disgusted. Luckily, one of our London members was going to Moscow on business and he took the money and handed over to the newly-formed Kurtz families association. We got a very nice thank you letter back from them. I also belong to the Captain Class Frigates Association - we have a reunion once a year. I like to keep in touch. At Lincoln at the last meeting there were about fifty of us were present, and somebody said that between us we could just about man a complete ship. Another chap said, ` Yes I suppose we could, but God knows where we`d finish up!