Memoirs of Henry (Harry) Plaice


Petty Officer Harry Plaice Contribution 1985




We sailed from Scapa Flow to an unknown destination, and eventually we arrived at Gibraltar Bay at 0100 hours to find that all the ships there were blacking out.
Our first task was to take oil from one of the Admiralty tankers, and by 0600 of the same day we entered the Mediterranean – this was the 7th November 1942. Over the loud speaker the ships company was addressed by the Captain who read out a message he had received from the C-in-C saying that we were going to land in North Africa, tomorrow at 0800 hours on the 8th November 1942.
I remember this message being read and concluded with, “Some of you will not return”.

There were sixteen Destroyers screening the Battle Fleet and our Destroyer was HMS MARTIN which had been detailed to position ‘B’ the second ship on the port wing.
There were two Captain D’s, D1 HMS ONSLOW and D3 HMS MILNE. Captain D3 was senior and in charge of the screen.
In the afternoon of November 9th 1942 both MILNE and MARTIN together with MARNE were detached to oil from the support tankers. MARTIN finished first and while standing by for D3 to complete oiling we received an “Enemy report” from our W/T Office telling us there was an enemy Destroyer in the vicinity.
We had just increased speed to go and find the enemy Destroyer when we were recalled by Captain D3 and told to join MILNE and MARNE to return to the fleet which was under heavy air attack.
On rejoining Captain D1 (Still in charge of the screen) MARTIN was then detailed to take up position ‘J’ – end ship of the starboard wing – and we eventually got through the air attack.
A short time after the attack the C-in-C made a general signal, ‘Fleet will alter course to ____ at 0200 hours without further signal’ this would be 0200 hours on the 10th November 1942.

Previously the Captain had said to me, “Yeoman, I must have you near me throughout” and he suggested I had a rough bunk in the Starboard Sponson where the lookouts sit with the big binoculars, but this place had not been corked and the condensation was very heavy.

I told the Signal Officer, he told the Captain, and so it was decided to rig up on the bulkhead a canvas camp bed, this was just under the Bridge and outside of the C.P.O.’s Mess. I slept on it during the night of November 9th/10th fully dressed, sea boots and all.
A couple of minutes after 0200 hours (we had just altered course) we were struck by two torpedoes. All lights went out - the ship heeled over - I landed on the iron deck – I could here escaping steam and of course lots of noise – shouting and screaming. I made my way straight for the ladder down to the area leading to the upper deck. The ladder was congested with the ‘lads’. Someone shouted “The water tight door is jammed closed, get back up top (the Port door was normally open and the Starboard door was always ‘Clipped’ closed).
I made straight for the Upper Bridge expecting to see my two dutywatch signalmen, Captain, O.O.W. Navigator, Midshipman and lookouts there, but it was deserted except for the Captain sitting in his chair. I spoke to him but he didn’t answer, I presume he was numb, knowing the bows had been blown off and the majority of his crew killed. I know my four signalmen who were lost were on that Messdeck.

The ship had already healed over to Starboard 50 degrees or more and all this had happened within a few minutes. I went up to the Flag deck on the Starboard side and I remember seeing my pal Petty Officer Telegraphist Gent coming out of the W/T Office and then he went forward, there were no bows and he must have been lost at once. I went straight into the sea just behind the Chief Buffer, he was not seen again, and at this time of night it was full of darkness. I did not realise that the sea was thick and black due to the fuel oil escaping and so I had gulped some of it when swimming away from the ship as quickly as I could. I had to get rid of my seaboots, then I realised that my lifebelt had not been blown up. I seemed to be struggling so hard with the seaboots on and the clothing getting wet knowing I must get away from the ship before she went down.
Eventually it seemed as though I was the only person there in the oily sea. I could not see or hear anyone and this must have contributed to my thought and panic. The oil fuel was in my eyes now, in my mouth and up my nose, and my wet uniform became heavy and was sticking to me. It was a horrible feeling as I became more and more exhausted. I went down under the surface feeling so tired, came up again and felt that this was surely the finish.
Whether one may call it an hallucination or not, at that moment, I clearly saw the face of my wife’s mother and she was saying “Take it easy, if you are going to go you will go”. The importance of that moment or experience was that I knew I had never seen or ever heard my wife’s mother because she had died before I met my wife. All I knew of her was that I had seen a photograph of her which my wife kept. Strange as all this may seem I did just what she told me and eased-up just keeping myself afloat which I presume gave me the extra few minutes in this world.
Shortly after just in front of me there was a boat, the occupants must have heard or seen me in the water. I tried to grab hold of an oar but due to the thick oil on the surface and my hands I could not grip and my hand slipped off each time I tried to hold it. I can just remember someone grabbing me and handling me into the boat and being laid on the thwarts, face down. I remember the loom of an oar hitting me on the head and shouting “Don’t, Don’t”.

The next thing I recall was coming to and finding myself lying on a camped on the messsdeck of a ship. A Doctor and two Petty Officers were looking down at me. One of the Petty Officers said “Don’t you remember me?” – “No” I said, my eyes were feeling clearer now. “Don’t you remember me giving you teaspoons of cocoa? After we got you onboard and cut your oily clothes off and threw them in the sea. Then we wrapped you up in a blanket and started to revive you, you were purple in colour and frothing from the mouth. The Doctor told me to keep giving you a teaspoon full of hot cocoa; you seemed to come round and passed out again”.
I had been in a bad way there was no doubt but eventually the events all began to come back to my mind, and I began to realise it had all been a very close thing. Soon the words of the Captain came back to me “Some of you will not return”. It was a close thing and I was very thankful for all the help I had received to pull me through.
The lads brought me cups of tea and food as well as cigarettes, by now my face and hands were cleaner.
Once again the Fleet had become subject to another air attack and “Action Stations” were sounded. Everyone left me to go to their Action Stations. So I felt alone on the messdeck still lying on the camp bed, the watertight door was closed, I was getting into a real panic for he circumstances seemed to be repeating themselves all over again.
After a little while I was able to stand up and keep my balance, the Coxswain gave me a pair of ‘Long Johns’ and a white shirt, no collar or tie, a pair of well washed jeans, socks and a pair of plimsoles. I felt to be back in the Navy once more with all my gear. Then I made my way to the bathroom to clean up and get rid of all the oil, but it was the fuel oil inside of me that could not be washed away.
A couple of days later I was able to see the list of survivors of HMS Martin. Apparently the ship had listed so much that other survivors had merely walked down her Port side and got into the carley rafts. I had gone the other way in the dark.
Here I was now on board HMS Quentin (she was torpedoed by Italian aircraft north of Algiers 2nd December 1942). We had been detached and been told to proceed to Gibraltar with all the survivors, just 63 out of our total ships compliment. 161 were known to be lost.

Upon arrival in Gibraltar all the survivors were billeted in a Nissen hut and as we had no money we just strolled along the Main Street or sat in a dance hall to listen to the music.
The next day we were informed by a First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Kavanagh, that we would be going back to the UK on the Battleship HMS Duke of York. A couple of hours later the First Lieutenant sent a messenger to tell me to go and see him. He was billeted on some ship along side the jetty. He said to me “I am sorry Yeoman, but you and your two signalmen (I had lost four) will not be going home. C-in-C’s orders are that all communications ratings who are survivors are to remain in Gibraltar for futher service”. I was shattered. The next day the First Lieutenant came along to see me and stared at me, as if to give me a hint and said “Yeoman if you were to march down to the jetty (Cormorant Steps) with the others and get into the launch to go to the ‘Duke of York’, and she sails out of the harbour, well you know???”. I got the message and told the signalmen to follow me down to the jetty and we met the R.P.O. who was
calling out the names, “Get into the launch as I calls out your names” he said.

The launch was just about to move off when an Officer spoke to the R.P.O. who then shouted “Stop that boat, the names I call out are to get out of the boat”. My name and the names of the two signalmen were called. You could tell how I felt. The First Lieutenant had tears in his eyes when I went back to the Nissen Hut. The hut was now empty. A little later I saw someone dressed in battledress who turned out to be a Yeoman like myself. (Combined Operations Yeoman) and he told me that he too was a survivor and now had to remain in Gibraltar as we had learned. The Combined Operations Yeomen said “No fear, I am going to see the Flag Lieutenant down in the Rock Tunnel”, and he suggested that I came to.
We both went to see the Flag Lieutenant and first saw the signal Boson, who said “Oh no, you go and report to the Chief Yeoman in the Signal Tower”. The Yeoman decided to go further along the passage and found the Flag Lieutenants Office, I followed. The Flag Lieutenant was quite understanding when he heard our story, and said that he had to go across to Algiers with the C-in-C, but he would see us again on his return.
This he did, and then told the Yeoman (Combined Operations) “You come under Lord Louis in charge of Combined Operations so you had better report to Cormorant for passage to the UK”. To me, he said “You’ve had a rough time, I do not have the authority to send you back home, but I will get on the phone and arrange for you to see Commodore (Gibraltar)”. I did just that and the Commodore said “Your place is back home, Yeoman” and he arranged everything straight away.

It was now the 30th of November and my wife was expecting our first baby about the 18th November and she had no idea where I was or what had happened to me. Having had a previous miscarriage and now the uncertainty of my whereabouts.
That night I went aboard S.S. Ordina on passage to Southampton, still wearing the clothes which had been given to me by the Coxswain of HMS Quentin, no cap. Also I had my Draft Note, Railway Warrant, Southampton to Chatham and three one pound notes. Not quite a fortune but welcome from Cormorant.
Arrived at Chatham in the blackout, and reached the Main Gate of the Barracks at about 0100 hours. There was a Master at Arms on the Gates who looked at my Draft Note and said “All your lads have gone on leave, they told me all about you”.
The Master at Arms was a real gentleman for he personally took me up to the P.O’s Galley and asked the Chief to give me a good hot meal. After I had finished my meal he asked me if I would sleep in the bathroom on a camp bed because all the personnel had gone into the Underground Shelter. Then he told me to be at the Main gate at 0830 hours and to ask for him, I did as requested. Early in the morning the Master at Arms took me on the whole ‘Joining Barracks Routine’ and took me to the head of all the queues, eventually finishing up at the Clothing Stores where I collected my uniform and kit.
The Master at Arms bid me have ‘Dinner’ and come and see me again as soon as you are ready to go. After having dinner I changed into my new uniform and proceeded once more to the Main Gate to ask for the Master at Arms and to collect my Travel Warrant. He wished me “Good luck and I hope everything will be alright for you, and I hope your wife will be alright”.

I arrived home (Woodford Wells) on the edge of Epping Forrest on the sixth day from Gibraltar and twenty-six days from the sinking of HMS Martin. There I saw my wife in bed and our new born, a lovely baby boy, in his cot, for he had been born on the 1st December 1942. It was lovely to be home with them for fourteen days regardless of the ‘Doodlebugs’ as they called them, (Flying Bombs).
On my return to Chatham Barracks the Drafting Commander said he would stop all drafts for me for at least three months, and I must get home whenever this was possible. My nerves were still very bad and I suffered still from the oil fuel which caused many problems for me.
Eventually I was drafted to the P.W.S.S. Freetown but I was not to forget the experience of the sinking of HMS Martin or the comrades who were lost when she was struck by two torpedoes from a German Submarine.

About two years ago I decided to put a letter in the ‘Navy News’ asking for any survivors of HMS Martin to write to me. I received two replies from ex-Stokers and strange as it may seem I received a letter from an ex-Submariner who until then I had not known. This was ‘Gus’ Britton the Assistant Director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport who had read my letter and he told me that the U-Boat which torpedoed the ‘Martin’ was U431 and that he had met the U-Boat Korvettenkapitan Wilhem Dommes and that he had visited his home in Hanover, he had also met the Kapitans wife. ‘Gus’ explained that every year he goes over to Germany for Reunions with the ex-Submariners of U-Boats.
Gus indicated that Kapitan Dommes was a very nice person, active and alert even though he’s now 82 years of age. He also indicated that the Kapitan would like to hear from me regarding the sinking of HMS Martin.
‘Gus’ Britton said that I might be able to assist the Kapitan in his search for any information of the Four-Masted Schooner ‘Paul’ that was wrecked of the Welsh Coast (Ferryside) in 1925 when the Kapitan was on her as a deck hand at the age of 16.
I visited the Swansea Library and found the relevant newspaper cutting about the ‘Paul’ and made a photocopy. Then I wrote to the Honorary Secretary of the Ferryside Lifeboat to enquire from him further details if any. He forwarded my letter to the Head Quarters and instructed me to write to a person who publishes ‘Wrecks off Welsh coast’. He was thrilled to receive my letter and sent me a gratis copy of the book in which it gave a account of the ‘Paul’ and asked if I would send him the address of Kapitan Dommes so that he could send a copy of the book to him also. I wrote to Kapitan Dommes informing him of my findings and that he would be receiving a copy of the book presently.
I received a letter from Kapitan Dommes together with a photograph of himself when serving in the Kriegsmarine and on U431, and a photograph of U431 the submarine and U178 which he later commanded.
The German U-Boat was sunk by HMS Ultimatum (Submarine) on 30th October 1943. The German Korvettenkapitan was Schoneboom.

One of the Signalmen who lost his life on HMS Martin was Signalman Wilfred Davidson whose parents lived in Radcliffe Lancashire. He had served in Russian Convoys and gave a high standard of performance as did all the Signalmen on board HMS Martin.