Memoirs of Stanley Arthur Hands


From S.Arthur Hands Ordinary Seaman C/JX 317702
Later Sub-Lieutenant RNVR in Coastal Forces

With the kind permission of his nephew Fred Hands



I joined the Royal Navy at HMS Ganges, Shotley on the 8th December 1941 (the day after Pearl Harbour) and after about ten weeks training was sent to RN Barracks Chatham to await draft. After a while I found myself together with several others from my class at Ganges with a draft chit to HMS Martin. In due course we learnt that this was a brand new Destroyer just completing, and clearly as good a draft as I could hope for. For some days I drilled with my future shipmates at the Gunnery School at Chatham, and we found ourselves on a night train to Newcastle. On arrival we were given breakfast, I believe at the local YMCA, and then bussed down river to Walker on Tyne where at Vickers Armstrong yard our ship awaited.

The officers and key ratings of course were already there, and there was no delay in detailing us for our messes and duties. I was in Green Watch, No.3 Mess, Forecastle Division: Action Station ‘A’ Turret shell loading number: Defence and Cruising Station-bridge lookout. There were 12 of us in 3 Mess – Tommy Fasham was the leading hand with one other leading seaman, 4 Abs, and 6 ordinary (and at the beginning very ordinary) seamen. Two of the Abs – Roberts and ‘Happy’ Lownes were ‘Geordies’ and could communicate with each other without anyone else understanding a word they were saying. ‘Happy’ was an Oerlikon gunner who was awarded the DSM after PQ16. Mashiter was the other L/S and George Humpage had been in my class at Ganges. The other names I cannot now recall, but I was the only survivor from 3 Mess.

We commissioned the day after our arrival 27th March 1942. Our Captain was Commander C.R.P.Thomson RN, a navigation specialist whose first command this was. The ‘Jimmy’ was Lt. J.J.C.Hooker RN, my Divisional Officer was Lt. C.Kavanagh RN, the navigator was Sub.Lt Bayley RN. In addition there was a Gunner (T), two RNVR Sub. Lts, two Engineer Officers and a Doctor.
Our full compliment varied from time to time, but in November 1942 was 222.

The most distinctive feature of the M Class destroyers was the twin Mark XX mountings for the 4.7 guns which in effect were miniature turrets, and these guns fired a heavier shell (62 pounds) then the earlier 4,7s. They were regarded as the Magnificent Ms’, and considered by some to be the most imposing Destroyers ever built.

For a week we went to sea for engine trials, speed trials, gunnery trials and probably other trials unknown to mere ODs, and then on Easter Saturday, 4th April left the Tyne for good and headed north for our war station at Scapa Flow. Travelling only in daylight we anchored off Methil overnight, and continued our journey to Scapa on Easter day. The sea that morning was a little rough and some of us fed our breakfast to the fishes, but we were in calm waters by dinner time and could enjoy that meal. For the next three weeks we worked-up with gunnery exercises, torpedo exercises by both day and night, and no doubt many other manoeuvres of which us new fo’c’sle hands knew or cared little, our time being fully occupied by the constant coming and going. Then towards the end of April our going had a more serious purpose, and we sailed to Hvalfjordur in Iceland to form part of the Destroyer screen to the battle Fleet which was to cover the convoy PQ15 to Russia, and the perils of those journeys was speedily bought to our notice.

On the 1st May while zigzagging in thick fog about 350 miles east of Iceland, the Tribal Class Destroyer PUNJABI next to us in the screen was hit and cut in two by the Battleship KING GEORGE V which was also damaged by the collision. MARTIN and our sister ship MARNE which had both just missed a similar fate were detailed to pick up survivors of which there were fortunately a large number. That was the end of PQ15 for both Ms who escorted KGV back to Iceland and then Scapa. By mid May, MARTIN was back in Iceland waters at Hvalfjordur where the next Russian convoy PQ16 was assembling. Here MARTIN’s doctor went sick, and his replacement was taken by R.Ransome Wallis from HMS LONDON for the trip. He published a book “Two Red Stripes” in 1973 and 30 pages of the book tell of adventures during PQ16 aboard MARTIN.

The ship then proceeded to Seidisfjord on the east coast of Iceland where she joined the Destroyers ASHANTI, GARLAND, VOLUNTEER and ACHANTES which were to form the close escort for the convoy, which with 35 ships was the largest Russian convoy to date. It was on this convoy that the action always started about dinner time, and indeed we advanced dinner time by one hour to suit the convenience of the German Air Force. We joined the convoy on the 23rd May and two days later was the start of five days of almost continuous air attacks. At that time of year there was no darkness in those latitudes. Our 4.7s could elevate to 50 degrees which was adequate to fire at high level bombers, but against dive bombers, the pom-poms and oerlikons were useful, and it was here that ‘Happy’ Lownes earned his DSM, and the Captain his DSO. On the evening of 29th May MARTIN was detached to escort the six ships destined for Archangel to the White Sea. One last attack cost us the last of our AA ammunition, and indeed we actually loaded a SAP shell into the gun which would have been useless against aircraft. Fortunately we did not have to fire it. MARTIN then rejoined the other Destroyers at Kola.

Of the 35 ships in the convoy 28 reached Russian ports safely. Our allies did not appear to appreciate our efforts.

MARTIN received orders to return to the UK at short notice, and in worsening weather, and the Captain agreed to take no more than 10 survivors from HMS EDINBURGH which had been sunk during PQ15, the survivors being landed at Polyarnoe, the Russian Naval base near Murmansk. It was not until 1982 when I read the book “Last Call for HMS EDINBURGH “that I learnt the full story. Apparently we took an eleventh survivor as a stowaway, who had to be rescued from his hiding place in the whaler because of the bad weather. All I knew at the time was that some of us were told to ignore the bedraggled sailor we saw in the other mess.

After PQ16 MARTIN had to go to Rosyth for minor repairs, and both watches had 48 hours leave, after which it was time for another Russian convoy, the ill-fated PQ17, for which MARTIN was again to screen the covering Battle Fleet.

Between 28 June and 7 July, the covering force patrolled between Spitzbergen and Jan Mayen Island, but after the premature scattering of PQ17, there was nothing to do except return to Scapa. Rumours about the convoy abounded, but we knew nothing definite, and indeed the full story did not emerge till after the War. For me the most important event of that period was my 20th birthday whereupon I was entitled to draw my tot. Also about that time there appeared on the ships notice board details of the previous MARTIN’s; it did not escape the notice of some that we were the 13th, and that three of our predecessors had foundered with the loss of all hands. In my family we have always regarded 13 as a lucky number, but for many of the crew their forebodings of ill-fortune were sadly to be grievously fulfilled.

MARTIN made a brief visit to Liverpool in July to escort KGV back to Scapa after repairs to the damage suffered in PQ15. We had had on board 4 CW candidates (potential officers) who after four months attended a selection board and were drafted ashore. I had hopes of following in their footsteps, and so I requested to be considered as a CW candidate. My request was granted and I was transferred to full watch keeping duties as a bosuns mate; my quartermaster was a leading seaman named Marshall, with whom I got on well. We worked in four watches both at sea and in harbour.

On 20th July MARTIN, accompanied by MARNE and the Hunt Class Destroyers MIDDLETON and BLANKNEY went via Seidisfjord to Archangel at high speed with ammunition and stores for the survivors of PQ17, and taking the new SBNO North Russia, Rear-Admiral D.B.Fisher and his staff. On our arrival we remained at the disposal of the SBNO until 24th August, making one short trip to escort a small Russian convoy. Most of the time we lay along side in Archangel where there were a number of merchant seaman survivors from PQ17 enjoying the hospitality of our allies which amounted to one bowl of cabbage soup with black bread once a day. Although our own ships rations were much reduced by this time, we did share our mid-day meal with some of the these unfortunate fellows, both British and American,

and I think we helped to overcome some of the bad feeling which quite naturally had arisen between the Royal and Merchant Navies over the PQ17 affair. We had good summer weather during this time with temperatures in the 70s. There was little to go ashore for, and football ashore and regatta events afloat were organised to keep us amused. But for me the most profitable activity were the navigation classes which the Captain conducted in the dog watches for the CWs, and any others interested. And here I would repeat what others have said about our Captain-he was most courteous and a true gentleman and his tuition proved most valuable to me later on. His award of the DSO for his part in PQ16 came through while we were in Archangel.

On 24th August, MARTIN and MARNE left Archangel to join up off Murmansk with HMS ONSLAUGHT, USS RODMAN and the Cruiser USS TUSCALOOSA for passage back to the UK on 25th. ONSLAUGHT, MARTIN and MARNE were detached to search for the German Minelayer ULM which was sighted at dusk SE of Bear Island, engaged with guns and finally sunk by torpedoes from ONSLAUGHT. MARTIN picked up 12 survivors, including the Captain, who must have abandoned ship before the torpedoes hit as the subsequent explosion was spectacular and devastating.

The next convoy was PQ18, and this convoy was provided with the Aircraft Carrier AVENGER, the AA Cruiser SCYLLA and a “Fighting Destroyer Escort” of 18 Fleet Destroyers which included MARTIN, 40 ships sailed, 3 were lost to U-Boats and 10 to aircraft – 27 arriving at Archangel, but between 13th and 17th September there had been many noisy battles. MARTIN left the convoy on 17th to join the returning convoy QP14 from which she was detached to stand by the damaged US Freighter WINSTON SALEM – a survivor from PQ17. A severe northerly gale made this an extremely uncomfortable experience.

In mid October MARTIN went to Greenock for boiler clean and each watch had 48 hours leave. On 30th October MARTIN left Scapa, this time heading south with the main British support force for Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. On 4th November MARTIN arrived in Gibraltar and was secured to a tanker to refuel. I was sent forward by the quartermaster to check the mooring lines, when I saw an officer with a large quantity of gold braid climb over the guard rails of the tanker and ourselves. I managed to salute, he demanded to know our Captains name, declined my offer to show him the way and dashed aft. I later learned it was Commodore Troubridge who was to command the Central Task Force for the forthcoming operation. On reporting to the First Lieutenant, he wanted to know why I had not greeted the Commodore with the customary honours. I explained that he had arrived unheralded and in a most unorthodox manner, and clearly in a tearing hurry. In fact the Commodore insisted on leaving in a similar manner.

MARTIN sailed on 5th November with the main covering force for the Algiers landings. I think we had a little action over the next few days, but it was nothing like our experiences on the PQ convoys. During the middle watch on the 10th November, I was on watch in the wheelhouse with the QM, telegraphs operator and bridge

messenger. With the permission of the OOW, we all took a turn on the wheel, and having been together now for four months we were considered quite competent to do so. At sea we were required to wear our lifebelts all the time, but when actually steering the ship the belt had to be removed as the spokes of the wheel could catch in the straps. I was due to take my turn at 0300 and had taken off my lifebelt when at 0259 we were hit by three torpedoes, and the ship immediately began to list to starboard. Marshall had been torpedoed before and knew what had happened, and shouted to us ‘get out of here’. He and the other two did just that, while I went to retrieve my lifebelt. The sliding door had closed behind them, by the time I had it they had disappeared. I went up to the bridge – if ‘abandon ship’ was to be piped then it would be my job. But there was no time for that. As soon as I got to the bridge Leading Seaman Blackie standing beside me said ‘Get ready to swim lad’ and I immediately had to do just that. I happened to be quite a good swimmer and put some distance between me and the sinking ship before pausing to inflate my lifebelt. I thought I was alone in the water, but found a large baulk of timber to support me. In due course a small raft with about a dozen men came close; I clung on, but stayed in the water with my timber. I thought it was about an hour before a ship came to look for us, it was HMS QUENTIN, and at time I believed the dozen or so of us were the sole survivors. I do not think I swallowed any fuel oil but my clothes were saturated. Aboard QUENTIN I was given a hot shower, my oily clothes removed and presumably ditched including my money belt which contained £3 and a few coins. I was probably examined by a doctor or SBA, but I do not remember it. I was then taken into the messdeck and given a survivor’s kit – vest, pants, socks, plimsolls, trousers and a jersey. In daylight I went round to see how many had survived; it was more than the original dozen and in fact 4 officers and 59 ratings had escaped, but most of Green watch had been lost, and I was the only survivor of 3 Mess. My three companions who had left the wheelhouse before me I never saw again. Aboard QUENTIN we were treated well; the ship had recently been in the Caribbean and had obviously victualled there and we enjoyed food that had not been seen in the UK since the war. Lieutenant Kavanagh who was our senior surviving officer interviewed us all in turn, and in speaking of our Captain said to me ‘England lost a future Admiral this morning’. After 2 or 3 days a senior rating of QUENTIN came to me asked if my name was Hands; when I said ‘yes’ he handed me my money belt, oil stained but with my £3 and odd coins intact; to cease having to be a beggar was a boost to my morale.

After 5 days aboard QUENTIN we were landed at Gibraltar, the seamen being told they would be repatriated to the UK, while the communications ratings were to be retained as reliefs at Gibraltar. I was partly kitted out, and indeed my new uniform was a better fit and certainty a better quality than the one I was issued with at Ganges. I had now been a CW candidate for about four months and was due for a selection board and Lt. Kavanagh arranged for another CW survivor Williams and myself to attend a board on HMS CHARYBDIS in Gibraltar, chaired by our own Captain (D) Ian Campbell (later Vice-Admiral Sir Ian Campbell, joint author of ‘The Kola Run’ 1958). He appeared to be mainly interested in my survival experience and my views on the effectiveness of the standard naval lifebelt. Gibraltar was at that time quite a pleasant place to be – warm, sunny, no blackout, and things in shops we had forgotten

about in England; I bought two lemons to bring back home. However we were told to be ready to leave at short notice when passage to the UK was available. Sure enough we were awakened at 0400, told to get ready quickly, given a hasty breakfast, and then hung about for four hours before boarding DUKE OF YORK. The homeward trip was uneventful, but rough enough in the Bay of Biscay to prevent the Destroyers with us from refuelling. After our time in Destroyers we did not notice any motion at all in the Battleship.

DUKE OF YORK took us to Greenock where we boarded a train which took us without changing, and without hurrying, right into Chatham Barracks, where after the usual joining routine, we went on survivors leave. During that leave the loss of the MARTIN and later that of QUENTIN was publicly reported. After that I went on an officers training course with Williams, but our paths diverged and I lost touch with him. I never met up with any other surviving shipmates.