The Rock at war
The essay below - "To and at Gibraltar - June 1942 to Feb 1943" is taken from "WW2 People's War" an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar'
This story records some of Peter Walker's recollections of during WW2. He was at HMS Osprey - the anti-submarine School at Dunoon in Argyllshire Scotland - where he qualified as a Higher Submarine Detector "H.S.D". Soon after he was told that he would to be sent to Gibraltar. This is Peter's story:
. . . . It was very cold at night in the Atlantic when we left the Clyde but having slept rough on deck round an Anti Aircraft gun as a boy on HMS Rodney earlier in the war it did not worry me. When we got into the Bay of Biscay it was much warmer and we arrived safely at Gibraltar where I disembarked.
On the troopship there was no freshwater for washing or showers. The water was sea water and we were issued with salt water soap which did not give a very good lather. For shaving I went to the galley and scrounged a mug of hot water.
HMS Cormorant the base ship was a floating hulk (once an old warship) (see LINK) and was short of accommodation. There was shore accommodation in brick-built blocks on the shore nearby. Hammock bars were provided in the dormitories for slinging our hammocks.
HMS Cormorant - with HMS Hart to its left - both with white awnings anchored by Coaling Island on the middle right
The Spanish had put an embargo on potatoes, so instead of potatoes, so instead of potatoes the cooks provided fried rice balls instead. But on Sundays we had tinned potatoes. I was allocated to the Base Anti Submarine officer to work with the Base Anti Submarine Staff giving base assistance to ships coming in and out of Gibraltar.
The work consisted of diagnosing faults and making repairs or replacements. Mainly major spares such as transducers, motor alternators, transmitters and receivers, and switchgear not carried on board ships but held by the base as strategic spares.
We had a workshop on the South Mole (see LINK) adjacent to the dockyard and where the ships docked or berthed. We also had a tool store made from an aircraft packing case.
Dry docks with a ship laden South Mole on the left
Early one morning I was woken by someone shaking my hammock. It was the Base Anti Submarine Officer. He said Lord Luis is coming through at the Straits on the Kelly. He requires base assistance to repair his asdic (sonar). He wants you to go out and meet the Kelly in the pilot boat and repair it on the way in
As soon as I boarded Kelly I was taken to the bridge to meet Captain Lord Luis Mountbatten. He said are you the technician, I confirmed that I was. He said there is something wrong with the bridge recorder. I am going in to Gibraltar to take on water and fuel and will be sailing in half-an-hour and if you have not it repaired it you will go to sea with me. He then went into his sea cabin adjacent to the bridge.
Kelly had met bad weather when crossing the Bay of Biscay. As a result the bridge recorder which was only splash proof had suffered from ingress of sea water and there was low insulation on one of the cables leading from the bridge recorder to the asdic control room.
Lord Luis returned to the bridge a short while later to find out how I had got on. Being a communications specialist he was familiar with electrics and electronics and said that the ship's staff would take over and told me to go down below a get some breakfast.
At the time Lord Luis was a Captain RN and "Captain D" in charge of the destroyer flotilla. Kelly was the leader. Kelly went on to Crete and was sunk by aircraft. Around that time many damaged ships came in to Gibraltar for repairs. I particularly remember one, a cruiser I think it was the Penelope which came in with her decks awash and docked in one of the dry docks just in time.
The Penelope in one of Gibraltar's dry docks being inspected by the Duke of Gloucester. She was affectionately known as HMS Pepperpot. She came to Gibraltar with her hull sporting hundreds of small holes caused by shell damage - all of them temporarily repaired with wooden plugs by her crew
To save the ship her captain had ordered all watertight doors and hatches to be closed which was the proper practice for damage control. The ship was saved but many men were trapped below as they could not get out in time I think it was in the hundreds. There was a smell of oil fuel, putrefying bodies and rotten meat.
The torpedoes had ruptured some of the oil fuel tanks and the cold stores. The dry dock near the bows of the ship was piled up with quicklime to dispose of the mess. The men who had to remove the bodies etc etc wore oilskins and were given plenty of rum.
On one occasion I had to take the place of the H. S .D of the Corvette HMS Spiraea while he was in hospital. Spiraea was a modified Flower Class Corvette much more advanced than the early flower class. She had a Giro compass and a more up-to-date asdic set. She also had hedgehog antisubmarine mortars which fired projectiles over the bows of the ship. I only participated in one convoy. The weather was a very rough and we did not detect any submarines.
I do not recall any air raids the only threat was underwater swimmers and human torpedoes from Algeciras who attacked ships at anchor in the outer harbour in the bay. To protect the inner harbour explosive charges were dropped at random at the entrance to the inner harbour about every half-an-hour.
Working parties were transported to and from the dockyard by open-top lorry. There were always hawkers selling grapes at the dockyard gate. There were plenty of things and to buy in the shops that were then unobtainable or in short supply in the UK. Nylon stockings were a popular buy to send home to wives, sisters, and girlfriends.
For entertainment and recreation we went to the Winter Gardens, the Universal Club and sometimes the Cathedral to listen to organ recitals. Bands played in the Winter Gardens on Sundays when all the shops and clubs were closed. As well as the bands there was a small outdoor dance floor. I believe the "Rock Apes" were nearby
We also went to the Watergate at the entrance to the Garrison to watch the "Ceremony of the Keys" similar to the changing of the guard. The Universal Club was a popular retreat and was for ratings and other ranks only. There was another club for officers further along the main street. The resident band and at the Universal was Ivy Benson's Women's Band.
Not necessarily Ivy Benson's but definitely a women's band at the Universal Club
Entertainers such as flamenco dancers, chorus girls, ventriloquists and magicians, and music hall acts would come over the border from Spain. The favourite tipple was San Miguel beer or a John Collins. A squad of Royal Marines used to moonlight as bodyguards to escort the girls to and from the dressing rooms and the stage. One other thing I particularly remember is that around Christmas Day 1942 there were snow flurries.
The number of damaged ships coming back to Gibraltar for refit or repair increased so it was necessary for a dockyard mobile squad to come out from the UK. Initially they were accommodated at Little Bay camp. They complained about the conditions so they were given our accommodation and we had to go to Little Bay Camp. It was an ex army camp for prisoners of war and had been condemned by the Swiss Red Cross.
Little Bay Camp in the 1940s when it was being used as a Prisoner of War camp
There were open-air ablutions and kitchens and the place was infested with cockroaches and flies. Gibraltar flies bite. I do not remember if we lived in tents or army huts. We had army beds on which we laid our hammock mattresses. I put empty tins under each leg of the bed and half filled them with creosote to deter the cockroaches.
My final assignment ashore concerned the installation and commissioning of an Asdic set in HMS Minna in dry dock. On completion her captain wanted me to stay with the ship. I jumped at the chance to get away from Little Bay Camp.