Jack Hall 1925-2006 - War memories

I was born at Canister Hall but we left when I was very young. I can`t remember living there. It was pulled down eventually. It was a big place and maybe it took too much money to do up. I don`t know who owned it. I was named John George and Ida Hollingsworth was my godmother. My father worked as an engine driver on the ironstone railway and in his spare time he did gardening for Mrs Clem until he was 82 or 83. He then lived up the Ropewalk where Mr and Mrs Dexter now live. I had a younger brother, Reg Augustus, and a sister, Molly, who now lives in Bulgaria. My mother was named Winifred Lucy Dexter.

From Cannister Hall, we went to Hospital Farm, Woolsthorpe, and then to a house behind the Red Lion on the Colsterworth High Street. When that was pulled down we went to one of a row of cottages down School Lane opposite the Stovold`s house. There was another small row of 3 cottages nearer the church. Mrs Gadsby lived there before us, and Mrs Tomlin lived along there and Gertie Marshall. I went to Colsterworth School under Mr Harrison, Miss Lowe and Mr Godby, who went into the Navy during the War.

After I left school, I went to work at Appleby Froddingham known as Froddies. This was before it became United Steel and later British Steel. I was over all the water pumps draining the pits, though I started as an engine cleaner. I worked there at night, and during the day I used to chauffeur Mrs Bland of Colsterworth House. She was a very tall lady, about 6ft 4ins. She was head of the British Legion and I took her all over Ireland, London, Birmingham everywhere. She had a daughter named Patricia who got married 2 or 3 times. I loved chauffering although she used to sit behind me doing the driving.

I volunteered for the Navy in September 1942. I was underage and kept having to take tests before they would have me. Mr Bailey manager of the Ironstone works, didn`t want me to go. He wrote to the Navy not to take me, but I wanted to go. My mother was not happy about me going either. But I had made up my mind. I got into the Navy in March 1943. I chose the Navy because I thought the uniform was smart. I fancied myself all dressed up in it, and anyway I thought I might attract the girls and it worked! I was always interested in ships. I have lots of books in the attic.

I went off to Plymouth, and it took me 11 days to get there. I did 10 weeks training and then I was sent to HMS Drake at Devonport, Cornwall. While I was there, still doing school-boy training, knots and suchlike, I saw a transfer offered to Chathhtam. If it was nearer where you lived you could transfer, so I did. I didn`t like Chatham, it was a horrible place. I did a stoker`s course for about 6 months but I didn`t like going below. In action, the stokers were locked in. So I trained as a seaman and ended up as a `tanky` which meant that you looked after all the food and dished the rum ration out. I was not allowed rum as I was under 21 yrs. I got 3d each time it was issued instead. This was a 5-month course and it turned out to be the best job I have had in all my life, plenty of food and rum.

HMS Westcott was my first ship. I was with another tanky as I was still learning. When I got back into dock, I had to return to Chatham to finish the course. You learnt how to chop up the meat with big cleavers, sorting out the joints. I did cooking as well, but I can`t boil an egg these days. The Westcott was an old ship, left over from the 1914-18 War. There were about 50 V or W ships Warfare, Walker, Verity etc. Several got sunk during the war. They did a good 30 knots but when the hedgehogs were put in, it pulled them down to about 26 knots. The hedgehogs were like spicket depth charges which were fired 12 at a time. They had to alter the ship to put them in and we only had 1 gun, a 4-inch, and some quick-firing orlicans after that. It had a crew of 140 and Lieutenant Lambton was our skipper, and a good skipper too.

I used to do gardening for Vera Watson, and she sent me 2 prayers which I took everywhere I went. I still have them. My Bible went with me as well Russia, Australia, everywhere. I got it from Chapel in 1936. You had to go 3 times every Sunday to earn it. I took it in my case with me and I still have it. Navy pay was about 11s with 1s taken out for soap etc. You got more as you got on. There was no special allowance overseas. I have always walked like a Navy man, though I can hardly walk at all these days.

Most of the time of my service I was on the Russian convoys, escorting merchant ships taking arms to the Russians. We went to Murmansk and Kola Bay mostly, The Russian convoys were terrible but when you are only 18 you don`t think about it too much. I got a medal from the Russians; my name is on it in Russian. It`s very nice to have and we had to fight to get it, but it is rubbish made. I have more medals, 6 or 7, upstairs in the attic. I shall leave them to the boys of my youngest daughter, Alison. They are Zac and Stefan. They are good boys, they`ll do anything for me.

When you were on the Russian convoys you weren`t allowed to take your clothes off. You lay in your hammock with them on, a week or more at a time, and without being able to have a wash. It was bitter cold. You got frostbite if you weren`t careful. I saw several with frostbite. The convoys were dangerous because it would get very dark, only 2 hours of daylight when you`re right up north. If a gale started up, at say 100 miles an hour, and you wanted to go from the foc`sle to aft on guard, you had to hold on to the life-lines or you`d get swept off your feet and over you`d go. There were these iron rails which stretched overhead with lines that would slip along them and were for you to hold on to. When you went below, your trousers would be white from the salt water. I was on deck most of the time when we did convoy duty. We had parades regular. We lined up to be counted to make sure we were all still there. They used to tell us, if anything happened don`t jump overboard. Better to go down with the ship. We had a lad once jumped overboard. Nobody knew why he did it but he only lasted about 5 minutes and he was dead, frozen.

The journeys to Murmansk took round about 10 days. As to the Russians, I couldn`t make them out at all. The sentries were all women, great big women too. They would walk up and down and you could hear their guns go Click-Click. I am sure that nobody would get ashore there unseen, not with them women on guard.The skipper used to take us off the ship. We used to go to the cinema and a nasty smelly place it was too, fusty, horrible. I was there one day when I met Charlie Atter`s brother. His parents used to keep the pub at Swayfield, the Royal Oak. I also met my old mate Jim Barnett. He was on HMS Speedwell, and on HMS Sheffield before that. Fancy me going all the way to Russia to meet them!

The Russians used to bring us bread and it was black stuff. We gave them chocolate which they called kye. It would be shredded up into a little bucket, filled with water and put under the geyser. It was lovely, like drinking chocolate. We did convoy duty all the time. One of them was the JW 57. The first I went on, we lost 14 merchant ships. The second wasn`t so bad, but on the third we lost 30. I saw several submarines and we sank 2 or 3 with depth charges. We picked up any survivors but you were not allowed to mix with them. They were picked up and taken down below fast and when we got back to Scotland, Loch Huey, they were taken off quick. We were torpedoed twice but sustained only slight damage. Once we had a hole knocked in the back of the ship and we had to put into Reykjavic in Iceland for repairs. They sent a gang out from the Govan Docks to do the work. We were in there a week. We were very lucky, although we did lose a couple of lads. We had a good skipper; he could dodge the subs by zig-zagging all the time. He once said that we must have a lucky omen on board, and I said ,`It is my Bible`, and he said` It could well be`.

We were on the Bismark chase. We were off Norway when it started and we followed it right across the Atlantic but we were called off when the Warspite and the Rodney came to take over. The Bismark had sunk 4 ships, including the Hood before we got to her, and she managed to dodge the big ships until they got her holed up in Montevideo Harbour, where she was scuttled by her captain rather than come out to face them. We were escort to the Warspite when we chased the Scharnhorst out of Bear Island where it was hiding. The submarines used to hide there as well as the bigger ships. You couldn`t get an echo on the asdic because of all the rocks. The Bismark and the Scharnhorst were magnificent big ships. I believe the Bismark was the biggest afloat. I did not fancy going on a warship though I did go on the Warspite for about 5 weeks when some took sick and we were sent to take their places. That was when I was in Chatham Barracks. The Warspite seemed so huge to me and when I was walking around I kept getting lost. I couldn`t find the right deck for where I used to sleep and so on. It was like walking round Grantham.

I have a lot of cuttings upstairs but they began to smell after a while so I`ve put some moth-balls in with them. We went to lots more places, Gibralter and Malta and Alexandria. The natives used to climb up the mooring ropes when you were below or up the other end of the ship, and they would steal anything they could lay their hands on. They were very clever and crafty. But we did them. We used to wrap a penny or a halfpenny in silver paper and throw it overboard for them to dive for. When they dived and got it, they would shake their fists at us. I went to Freetown, Sydney, Algiers and I enjoyed it. I wouldn`t have seen the world if I hadn`t joined the Navy. That`s was more or less why I joined up.

The worst time was D-Day. We were back on the Russian convoys but at this time they stopped us setting off and we had to lie in the Channel for 2 days waiting for D-Day which had been put off for a day because of the weather. When it did start we set off patrolling off the coast of France to protect the invasion ships going over. When you got near the beaches, it was terrible. Bodies and little boats floating all over the place. It was the worst thing I have ever seen On those beaches, the Americans were being mown down before they got anywhere, it was just terrible. That was the roughest time I had in the Navy. The Russian convoys were bad enough, but D-Day was worse.

I saw some lovely places. The Faroe islands were beautiful, I could lived there, it was smashing, But the best place was Dundee. Aberdeen is nice, and Dunferline, but at Dundee there were four girls to every boy. I finished on HMS Cochrane at Rosythe. I come off the Westcott because they scrapped it. HMS Cochrane was an old-fashioned store ship with an old mast. I was still a butcher and a tanky and we used to take out the meat and other things in the food line to different depots in special lorries. I would put some sort of packing in the bottom before I filled them. What should have been in the packing space, I sent home to help out with the rations which weren`t very good.. The parcels were supposed to be x-rayed but I was courting a girl at the Post Office and she would write `checked` on them and off they went to my parents. We were fiddling everything. But we couldn`t fiddle the money though. I used to give the officers special meat, for instance the filet. Give them extra meat, and they would give me extra warrant papers so I could have home leave. And they were the officers!

I left the Navy in 1946 which was a big mistake. When I came out I thought I`d collect my gratuity and have a good time with it in those days I liked my ale and then go back in. But I had gastric trouble which would not clear up, and though I applied three times, they would not accept me. I even tried to get in the Merchant Navy and couldn`t. So I gave up and went back to Proddies. My wife, Ada, worked for Joe Woolerton, the farmer, and at Fred Rippin`s. She was in service there. My old dad used to say,` If you`re going to get married, son, marry a girl who has been in service and can cook!`. So I married Ada and we had 4 boys and 2 girls.

I was on tractors when Bill Atter got killed. This low tractor had a clutch and brake all in one, and you had to take your foot up, let the tractor come back, and then drop the trailor on the back. It was a big RAF sort of thing. It appeared that his leg went under the exhaust which came up and went in his mouth and killed him. Nobody would fetch him, so Mr Bailey told me to go and fetch him. It was a terrible sight.

I boxed for the Navy. I boxed before, since I was about 122 years old. Mr George Merritt used to train us. I would box in garden fetes and things like that. In the Navy you could only box when you came back to base. I used to box for Colsterworth Boxing Club when I came out of the Navy and for Ruston and Hornsby`s at Grantham. George Marritt was still the trainer. We would box in the old village hall, me and Fred Branston and Bill Rawson and George Stedman. I remember Fred left his teeth in once and I chopped him one and his teeth flew out. We all had a good laugh. I had lots of boxing medals but I gave them round the family. I boxed at light-weight, 9 st. 6 lbs. I enjoyed it. I would play football in the afternoon and box at night. I played football for Colsterworth and for the Ironstone. You had to when you worked for Mr Bailey. If he saw you kicking a ball about, that was it. You were in! He was very good to me. He had the boxing ring made for the village hall. The Hereward boys from Bourne used to come and box us, and they were tough little devils. Mr Bailey was a good man to the village really. Well I think so.

I still keep in touch with the HMS Westcott Club but I have heard that it is disbanding. I was the youngest on board and I am 80 now so most of them are in their nineties and can`t get to the meetings. I send them 20 a year. The subscription is 5 but I send them a bit more towards the raffle prizes and suchlike. There are not enough members to keep it going now. My messmates, the Cockneys, the Scotch and the rest, I have tried to find them but I can`t sort out where they are.

It was a good life in the Navy. Mind you, if you stepped out of line, you`d had it. They were dead keen on discipline. You would get number 11s on jankers, which meant that you had to get all dressed up with your full pack and run all the way round the ship. They`d call you to do it every morning and night. Your mates would be going ashore to enjoy themselves at night, and you couldn`t go. I got it for 2 days once, but never again. I learnt it was not worth it. The Navy was all right in wartime, but in peacetime it got a bit boring. You`d have to get all dressed up to go ashore, whereas in wartime you could go as you liked, with your seaboots on and anything like that. They didn`t bother you, but after the war they tightened up. There were inspections every day.

In spite of the danger and the terrible conditions, those 44 years I spent in the Navy were the best years of my life. If I had my time over once more, I would go again, only this time I would not come out. I would sign on for 21 years.