Memoirs of Charles James Witham



Leading Seaman Charles James Whitham C/JX 163877




After six weeks working up with other ships and doing all the shake down drills, HMS MARTIN joined the seventeenth Destroyer Flotilla; this Flotilla never reached its potential, for never did all the ‘M’ Class Destroyers operate together.

We sailed as a covering force for PQ15 Convoy outward bound to MURMANSK. In the covering force was KING GEORGE V and USS WASHINGTON an Aircraft Carrier, among many others, in fact one could say it was a Battle Fleet. CRUISERS, BATTLESHIPS, CARRIERS and DESTROYERS. Also on this force was HMS PUNJABI, Tribal Class Destroyer, ships company of about 150 Officers and men.

In the Royal Navy at all times, there was twice a day when the crew must be accounted for, 0800 hrs when the hands were mustered for working part of ship and 1600 hrs Evening Quarters. COMMANDER THOMSON (Captain of HMS MARTIN) insisted on this as did most Royal Naval Captains.

After two days at sea and various exercises to make us compatible as a force, came a fateful day. 1st May 1942, thick fog, and ships were ordered to steam at 20 knots, steaming fog buoys, for the uninitiated this was a small specially constructed buoy on a wire which was towed astern at varying lengths depending on the station keeping distance.

The buoy sent up a spray of water and hopefully the ship astern would see the spray. Steaming at 20 knots (about 24 mph) under these conditions it wasn’t very pleasant. Time was 1600 hrs, Evening Quarters had just sounded, we on HMS MARTIN were trooping the muster. At this time the fog began to lift and there was HMS PUNJABI beam onto HMS KING GEORGE V. I was level with the starboard whaler and what was happening was on our starboard side, it seemed as if HMS KING GEORGE V had hit HMS PUNJABI and turned her broadside on and was about to hit her again, this time HMS PUNJABI was cut into two parts.

There was no Evening Quarters on HMS PUNJABI everyone, except those on watch, were at tea. The Officers in the wardroom had no chance, the wardroom and Officers cabins aft, and HMS KING GEORGE V hit just forward of the wardroom which broke away and sank instantly. Generally at sea when a ship sank the others in the fleet continued on and one ship would return later to pick up survivors, however, in this instance COMMANDER THOMSON ordered away all boats, GOD BLESS HIM. The nearest five men and myself manned the starboard whaler, which was the lifeboat for emergencies. We pulled men from the sea and it was a pleasure to do so, although it was a sad occasion.

The collision should never been allowed to happen, 20 knots under those conditions was rubbish. A total of forty three lives and the ships cat I believe were saved by HMS MARTIN Ships Company. I think the Captain and the cat were taken off the sharp end of the bows as the remainder of the ship sank stern first. Little did we know how many men we were to save on HMS MARTIN before she found her own watery grave

The KGV had a gash in her bows like a crocodile’s mouth, and it extended at a guess about 20 feet just above the water line. We were detailed to escort the KGV to Scapa Flow, whilst at Scapa I spoke to one of the KGV crew, he said, “All they felt was enough movement to splash a cup of tea into someone’s face”, unlucky him.

Now comes the convoy that was to have a profound effect on me and all the ships company. Although at the time I was a Leading Seaman and a Gunnery Control rating and had been at sea on various ships since before the war, and had been on Northern Patrols, served in the Mediterranean, I and others like me didn’t know what we had coming to us.

The MARTIN left Scapa Flow on the 15th May; the convoy itself left Hvalifjord on 21st May 1942. The MARTIN after topping up with fuel at Seidisfjord joined the close escort on the 23rd May 1942.

The attacks on the convoy began on the 25th May. HMS MARTIN spotted and attacked U591 which was approximately seven miles off the convoy’s starboard beam. Just before the MARTIN arrived the submarine began to take avoiding action. HMS MARTIN opened fire but her salvos were falling short, she ceased firing and at 1504 hrs as she was closing in rapidly U591 crashed dived. The MARTIN dropped an accurately placed pattern of depth charges, but unfortunately the U-Boat had not dived as deep as was thought and so the charges exploded too far beneath her. Although the U-Boat was shaken violently by the explosives, she suffered no damage.

At 0600 hrs on the 26th May, HMS MARTIN sighted two U-Boats on the surface about seven miles off her starboard beam. These were U209 and U586. At 0603 hrs on spotting the destroyer they both crashed dived. At 0650 hrs with HMS ACHATES the MARTIN commence a search but gained no contact, although at 0846 hrs the third U-Boat, U591, which was still shadowing the convoy fired salvo of three torpedoes at the ACHATES, all missed. At 0939 hrs HMS MARTIN located and engaged U586, salvos from her guns became increasingly accurate and at 0939 hrs U586 crashed dived and the MARTIN began a depth charge attack, once again the U-Boat escaped damage.

During the attacks on the convoy many ships were lost or set on fire. The STARI BOLSHEVIK was set on fire and during a lull in the fighting the MARTIN put the ships Doctor on board, at the same time we gave help to the Russian ship by putting hoses aboard from our pumps to assist in pumping her out. The ships Doctor requested that three of their badly injured crew were allowed on board for treatment, they had terrible wounds, but no moans or groans from them. Another thing that surprised us about the Russian ship was that 50% of the crew were women.

The air attacks began on the night of the 25th May at 2035 hrs, they were to last for five days and six nights, totalling well over two hundred attacks, and the nearer we got to the North Cape the more intense they became. At a guess, over the five days and six nights we picked up over one hundred survivors of different nationalities.

The STARI BOLSHEVIK although badly damaged rejoined the convoy and maintained the convoy speed. For their devotion to duty the Captain and First Officer of the Russian ship were made Heroes of the Soviet Union, and the ship herself awarded the Order of Lenin and well deserved it.

When we were nearest to North Cape, there was over one hundred raids in one day; in fact numbers of aircraft totalled hundreds. My action station was in the Director Control Tower from where all the guns were controlled. With me in the little round can just behind the bridge was Jock Burke, Director Trainer, the Control Officer Range Taker, Director Layer, like everybody else at their action stations it became our home for the next few days.

During anti-aircraft actions I was a glorified lookout, being in view of those on the bridge and being in the highest position on the ship, when asked on several occasion ”How many aircraft could I see in any one group” having counted to fifty or more, being told not to worry anymore. One other hazard for us with regards to air attacks at that time of year is nearly 24 hours of daylight.

I must now write of COMMANDER THOMSON, Captain of HMS MARTIN, unmarried in private life but married to his ship. HMS MARTIN as I understood was his first command, he had previously been FLEET NAVIGATION OFFICER and of all the Officers I served, he was the coolest and a true gentleman. The instruction he gave to all lookouts was “Say when the bombs leave the aircraft”. He would then give a few quiet commands and when the bombs hit the water that’s where we would have been, but weren’t.

The Germans were dropping bombs linked together by chains, if one hit, they all hit. Also there were high level, low level and torpedo bombers. To use the expression ‘They came in droves’ is no exaggeration. On one day ten ammunition ships met a terrible end and left ten palls of smoke for a couple of days.

The convoy eventually reached MURMANSK where we waited until they decided that we were so low on ammunition we would go back to England at high speed with the survivors from HMS EDINBURGH and also a delivery of Gold Bullion.

One incident I must recall on the convoy was how, between the raids the cooks of the mess had to try and prepare meals. Marrowfat peas were on the menu and these peas being so hard before being soaked, make a terrible noise if dropped into an empty pan. We had all gone to the messdecks, except those closed up at defence station, second degree readiness- everybody fully dressed, just lying around- when the cook of the mess emptied some hard peas into the mess fanny. It sounded just like the alarm rattlers, the noise cleared the messdeck in two seconds. When we realised what it was, he was no longer called a cook. That’s how bad our nerves were.

We were picking up survivors from time to time and transferring them to ships at the rear of the convoy detailed for this job, by this time many of the MARTINS crew had little of their kit left as it had been given away to survivors.

When P.Q.17 sailed, it was expected that there would be attacks by German Pocket Battleships, HMS MARTIN was included in the covering force, in the eventual decimation of P.Q.17 our covering force achieved nothing, for the armchair pundits in the Admiralty moved all and sundry around like pieces on a Chess Board, and so made a glorious mess of everything. Fleet returned to Scapa Flow.

HMS MARTIN sailed to Archangel via Iceland on the 15th July 1942, the company was HMS MARNE (sister ship), HMS BLANKNEY and MIDDLETON – Hunt Class Destroyers. We were loaded with small stores and replacements, our replenishments were in general for HMS KALANASKA, this was the Naval Establishment on shore at Archangel, although we were helping the Russians they were not prepared to supply food in any quantities to R.N. personnel. As well as food for the ship, we also carried spares for other ships. After we had unloaded our stores to the shore base, we were instructed to unload our supplies and just keep on board the hard rations. i.e. flour, rice, corned beef and what is known as emergency rations.

Within three hours of doing this we were then told that the Russians had requested that we be loaned to them and to be based at Archangel. We immediately requested the shore base to return some stores, only to be given an emphatic ‘NO’, so from about the 20th July to the 15th or 16th August began a diet which consisted of corned beef cooked and messed about with. The cooks worked wonders, the only problem was food, chocolate and things from the canteen rapidly ran out. We were reduced to five cigarettes a day in the end, and the Russians supplied us with one issue of Yak meat and boil it, fry it; it is still only good for repairing your shoes.

HMS MARTIN did one trip for the Russians; this was to a place called SVENSJON – the Russian Scapa Flow – convoy up – free return, all quiet. Everybody on board was extremely pleased to hear of the orders to rendezvous with USS TUSCALOOSA who would supply us with fresh stores.

Now think of this and remember. The time, middle of August 1942 up near the Artic Sea, a beautiful American Cruiser, this is my true eye witness account of what happened – I was detailed to take the motor boat to the TUSCALOOSA, the stores order having been passed by light.

HMS MARTIN kept a continuous patrol around the Cruiser, when I arrived on the deck of the TUSCALOOSA imagine my surprise to find the crew carrying cases of oranges, passing comment on this amazing sight (remember oranges didn’t exist in the U.K. and hadn’t for three years) a box was smashed open and we were presented with armfuls each, next we were taken to the Ice Cream room, then cartons of cigarettes for each of the boats crew and all this as well as the stores, edible and cigarettes for all the crew, in fact everything and more than we had requested. BLESSED GOOD NATURED YANKS. THANKS CHUMS.

We proceeded to KOLA INLET; we left in company with HMS MARNE and ONSLAUGHT. If I remember correctly, HMS ONSLAUGHT was Senior Officer and that was not good for HMS MARTIN. A German Minelayer ULM was sighted and we all attacked inline abreast then turned slightly to starboard. HMS MARTIN and MARNE had 6 – 4.7” guns each, and a new shell of about 50 odd pounds, HMS ONSLAUGHT had 4 – 4.7” guns, old type shell, and the ULM was put out of action. HMS MARTIN was going to torpedo her when HMS ONSLAUGHT cut across her bows, as she was Senior Officer she did the torpedo attack. I cannot remember picking up survivors, as at the time we were expecting a reprisal raid from aircraft, so we got away as quickly as possible.

With P.Q.18 we were again part of the escort until we were detached to escort P.Q.14. It was in effect a fairly quiet convoy and it wasn’t until we joined P.Q.14 we saw action again.

We had sailed on the 4th September 1942 and on those convoys you never got enough rest, even though one may have just finished the middle watch, 0000 – 0400 hrs, Dawn action stations would sound off and it was all closed up again. It was like that on the morning of the 20th September, somewhere between 0500 – 0600 hrs when we closed up, and I was cursing about dawn action stations to the Control Officer in our little ‘Tin Can’. He silenced me with a nudge and a pointing finger. HMS LEDA M/S Sloop was disintegrating having just been struck by one or two torpedoes, there wasn’t many survivors, and I never complained about Dawn action stations again.

Between 27th September and 30th October 1942 some repairs were done alongside HMS WOOLWICH or HMS TYNE, both repair and Mother ships based at SCAPA. We also escorted big ships out on their exercises, so there was no action. HMS MARTIN was detailed to sail to Gibraltar, a convoy was formed, and we sailed. For us it was just a convoy to Gibraltar and it was a relief to know we were going to warmer climates for even summer Northern waters is a cold place to be.

When we reached Gibraltar we realised that it was something bigger than a normal convoy when one saw the ships in the harbour, all the Destroyer pens full up, Battleships, Cruisers, Carriers and Troop ships, but the question was, Where?

The date we sailed was probably the 4th or 5th of November 1942. Operation Torch, Invasion North Africa. This time out we were in the Eastern covering force comprised of Battleships, Carriers Cruisers and Destroyers, we were at all times in a ‘V’ formation, Cruisers would be ahead of the force. On the night of 9th November, a Destroyer the third in the starboard wing was sunk. I think it was a Dutch ship, she was torpedoed.

On the morning of the 10th November 1942 at about 3 minutes to 3 o’clock, three torpedoes hit HMS MARTIN. I was in the Director Control Tower. By 3 o’clock HMS MARTIN was no more, a good ship and a happy ship. The quietest job we ever had and it cost us dearly. On the following pages I will try to recall what happened.

One of the surviving Officers had been a Submariner, and in his opinion, a complete five salvo of torpedoes had been fired at HMS MARTIN. One had gone passed the bows or stern, one was set deeper between the 2nd and 3rd hit, they then would have been spread out in accordance with German Naval procedure, this does seem feasible.

After HMS MARTIN was hit the next 3 – 5 minutes was chaos, and what follows was my personal experience.

In the Control Tower with me was A/B BURKE. When the first explosion occurred the ship seemed to stop dead and then leap forward, at this stage the ship was at Defence stations, approximately one third of the ships company would be closed up at their stations, at this time it was Red Watch. The first explosion was very rapidly followed by the second, and shortly after by the third, at the rate the ship was heeling over there was not a chance of her surviving.

If the order to abandon ship was given, we in the Tower never heard it, but A/B BURKE and myself both realised it wasn’t needed as the ship heeled over to starboard. A/B BURKE got out easily, as his door swung out that way. The doors to the Control Tower were about 2” thick solid steel with two clips on the door, quite hefty to push upwards and outwards. Fortunately there was no trouble with the clips and the door eventually opened. By this time the ship was virtually lying on her side.

When I reached the bridge everybody that could was coming up through the wheelhouse. I saw COMMANDER THOMSON arrive on the bridge with the Officer of the Watch and a Junior Watchkeeping Officer. It was too steep for me to climb up to the port wing of the bridge to go over the side into the water on the side that had not been hit, (this is the instruction one gets in training) so I slid down onto the starboard wing.

All men during the war were issued with an inflatable lifebelt to which is attached a waterproof Red Light (Thanks be to God I was wearing mine). The reason one goes over the undamaged side is fairly obvious, to avoid the undertow as the water rushes into her. I warned a couple of young seamen not to dive in but to walk into the water (seems odd to walk into the water from the bridge).

Two frightening things happened. First the engineers had released the steam escape valve to let off her steam (safety precautions to prevent her boilers exploding, 2000lbs per sq. inch) and secondly the force of the third explosion had just about blown the fo’c’s’le deck away and allowed the anchor cable to run out, all these things happened in a split seconds.

The time had now come to take ones leave of HMS MARTIN and pray to God or whatever you believed in for survival. I walked into the water and started to swim because the weather was fairly warm and I had been in the Control Tower, I had gone on watch dressed in overalls and underwear and wearing gym shoes. During the time I was swimming from the ship I looked round once or twice and it seemed she was following me, in retrospect it was probably the water trying to draw me back to her.

HMS MARTIN was hit at 0257 by 0300 she was gone. After being in the water for a while one heard voices calling and saw little red lights, we also found 2 Carley rafts, 1 Flotilla net and 2 small square floats which had either broken free or been released from the ship.
A Carley raft can accommodate about 30 men and the first one I swam over to was full, so I swam to the next one, only a few yards away and hung onto the ropes, that’s how we were to be for the next 5 hours or more.

The time was now 0800 – 0815 hrs, someone shouted “There’s a ship” and tried to stand up to shout and wave, but an Officer called “Don’t, it may be the submarine”. With the morning mist and we being low in the water, the control tower did look like the conning tower of a submarine, but our fears were unfounded, it was indeed a ship returned to pick us up.
Nobody around the rafts seemed to be badly injured, so we started to swim towards the ship and the boats she had lowered, when suddenly a JU88 appeared and the ship had to leave us once again.

When she returned we found out she was HMS QUENTIN, herself to be lost on 2nd December 1942. Our treatment on HMS QUENTIN was anything but welcoming, and we spent five days of agony and fear on her, for we joined up again with the fleet and carried on as normal, until HMS QUENTIN was despatched to Gibraltar.

Reaching Gibraltar we were assigned to HMS CORMORANT shore base and ceased to be HMS MARTIN crew and instead became nonentities. On HMS CORMORANT they were unable to supply us with clothes; we looked like a real bunch of bananas. Soon they started drafting the survivors to replace other men lost and injured, and so they carried on the fight in the Mediterranean, not more than twenty came back to England, a sad end to a happy ships company and a grand Skipper.

I was Leading Seaman of No 1 mess starboard side when HMS MARTIN was sunk, (directly over the third torpedo explosion) from my mess there were three survivors and myself, Jock Burke, J.J.Airey and J.J.Airey (no relation).

When on watch all gun positions transmitting stations was linked to the Control Tower, Jock Burke would go through the entire watch singing to all positions, his repertoire of songs was extensive, and the one I thought most heartrending was about ‘A mother who kept a light burning in the window for her wondering son’. To this day I do not know the the name to particular song.

J.J.Airey (No. 1) – Today he would be classed as a tearaway, always in trouble with authority, but always with a smile and acting daft. One survivor related how he saw him sitting on the side of the ship by the Pennant Numbers, singing of all things ‘Show me the way to go home’, as he moved into the water the shipside opened and a sheet of flame came out, but he was in the water and safe.

J.J.Airey (No. 2) was exactly the opposite to No.1. Tall and fair, plumpish, dark hair, well behaved, he couldn’t swim and dog paddled all the time we were in the water with a Duffel Coat on!! He got to HMS QUENTIN before the JU88 appeared, they through him a heaving line and in the panic when the aircraft appeared he got the line tangled around his feet and hands, he was towed alongside HMS QUENTIN until she stopped.

I am not a religious man, but I had a great affinity with my Mother and I know she swam alongside me the entire time I was in the water giving me encouragement. I arrived home in December 1942 about 0900 hrs, as I sat down in the house; the BBC announced the loss of HMS MARTIN (approx 6 weeks after she had been sunk). My Mother told me she knew I had been in trouble but that I was alright, I hadn’t written or cabled her but she knew I was okay.

At Chatham Barracks in St. Georges Chapel there was a Book of Remembrance, one paged turned every day. You were allowed to turn the pages and look at relative’s names. Now that the Barracks have been closed I don’t know if the book is still there. Whenever you hear the song’JEALOUSY’ being played, give a thought to HMS MARTIN. It was a favourite on board and the last song to be played on her.

C.J.WITHAM ex P.O. CJX 163877

From German war records I have since discovered the HMS MARTIN was torpedoed and sunk by U431 whose Captain was Lt. COMMANDER DOMMES.