THE TOM-TOMS AT THE 2009 FCCA REUNION
Every year the Flower Class Corvette Association hold a reunion - a gathering which gives the opportunity to honour achievement, have a general catch-up and reminisce over old times. It is also an opportunity to honour the fallen and, sadly, to raise a toast and honour those that may have passed away during the previous calendar year. This last event is always an emotional moment as the guys say farewell to comrades and other ex-seamen.
Tom Walford receives regular newsletters and updates from the FCCA detailing upcoming events after his daughter Carol bought him a lifetime membership as a much researched Christmas present. In 2009 he expressed an interest in attending the annual reunion and I, as an admirer of all that Tom has achieved in his life, asked if I could accompany him. The date was set and the itinerary planned - one night, two days, lots of chat, beer, food and football results and - more importantly - no work! The naval club in Leamington Spa was to be the venue and it would be the task of the two Toms to enjoy the reunion and to make sure that the odd beer and perhaps a curry would be thrown into the mix during the visit - "a chore, but someone has to do it" were the thoughts of the two Toms.
Generally, as with most events of this nature, there seemed to be so many people who are all milling around but not quite knowing what to say or who to approach. This was never likely to be a problem for the two Toms who are both a bit forward by nature and as expected Tom W was very soon chatting to other delegates. Within ten minutes of arriving at the hotel both Toms had a pint in their hands and food on order. Within a further twenty minutes both had met two comrades from the FCCA and everyone was in deep discussion about times past. For me (Tom B or Tom Jnr.) it was a matter of sitting back and listening and to be honest I quickly realized that I would have bought a ticket to a discussion such as this and I felt sure I could have managed to sell them too!
I've always thought that whenever I talk to Tom W about any experience, let alone his wartime experiences, I feel that I'm talking to a thirty something rather than an 80 something. Everybody who knows Tom W would agree that he has fantastic skills to adapt and fit in wherever he may be and within a few minutes of meeting any of his fellow FCCA members it seemed to me that they were best friends.
Soon Tommo, rather than Tom W, was used as a nickname by two men he had never met before and within the half hour all the chaps present knew the ages, posting locations, marital status and names of ships on which they had served - a testament to the trust that Tom W received from pretty much anyone he meets.
As someone almost fifty years the junior of these gentlemen it was an absolute privilege (and a laugh I have to confess) to be in their company.
The wartime stories that Tom W has told me in the past regarding cooking fatigues (canteen messing), punishments, and life on board was completely mirrored by the words the other chaps were saying. To me this rubberstamped everything in my mind and proved that life in the navy aboard these vessels was a tough life, but one that shaped the lives and character of these chaps and made them into the true gentlemen they are today. Whilst sitting and listening to these gents I was often left wondering, or should I say hoping, that I might turn out to have the same moral values that these gentlemen possess and perhaps have the same outlook on life when I reach a similar age. In anyone's eyes it was plain to see Tom W had met some old friends even though their paths had never crossed before today.
Throughout the first day we attended the AGM of the FCCA in the Leamington Spa Naval Club. The event was a privilege to attend. A room of one hundred or more war veterans, most of whom had seen things that I could hardly even imagine. Every last man or woman was a real hero.
The event progressed with as much pomp and ceremony as they could cram in. National anthems (complete with verses I'd never sung before), a ship roll call, hymns and other FCCA business. After the "administration" the event changed and became a much needed social occasion. The rum, Guinness and other bevy's flowed as well as the resumption of stories and tales from days gone by. One thing I did notice throughout the day was the intense concentration each fellow displayed when a friend was reciting a tale of their life. It was a mutual respect; a respect for each other that seems unparalleled in any other setting I've ever seen.
The formal day started with a beer and finished with one. The two Toms departed the official proceedings and made their way back to lodgings for a snooze before venturing into Leamington Spa. To be honest the youngest Tom was looking for a second wind and the eldest Tom was looking forward to his next pint! Day one finished with a curry, another beer and lots more chat. A long day was drawing to a close. It had been a fantastic day that we will both remember for a very long time.
Day two turned out to be an emotional day for all concerned. It started with a trip to the cenotaph and a formal wreath laying ceremony to honour friends and colleagues past and present. To see these gentlemen looking so humble with all their thoughts concentrated on friends past was a sobering experience but once again I felt it was a privilege and an honour to be part of such an event.
The funny stories are never too far away when chatting to these gentlemen although I was told by one comrade that for every funny story there is a sad one that you're very unlikely to hear unless you ask. Once again, after the formalities, the day was to end back at the naval club. More rum and beer was consumed and fond heartfelt farewells took place.
Medals were put away and uniforms disrobed. Goodbyes said to new acquaintances who had become friends in just two days.
One last funny moment - Tom W has always had a varied and exciting life, but to see him get changed in front of a 6ft portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, was one of the most surreal moments he will ever have and I am sure, one of the funniest I will ever see. I'm pretty sure our monarch had a wry smile upon her face as Tom's backside went skyward!
The weekend went without a hitch. The FCCA received some terrific donations and the future for the Association looks strong. I learnt many things during the weekend, including a greater degree of both respect and humility I've heard many of Tom W's stories over the years - all of which are fascinating. One thing that never leaves my mind is the hard work, the determination, the bravery and the strength of character that Tom, and all those other gentlemen I met, must have displayed throughout their lives and what they went through in order to have such stories to tell. The other thing that crosses my mind is that it's a privilege to know such an honourable man who I am proud to call my friend.
Tom Buckley aka Tom Jnr.
Thank your for your website. I was too young to fight in World War II, but as you say you are interested in incidents relating to flower class corvettes, I thought I would tell you this story, even though I know it doesn't amount to much.
In June of l941 I crossed the Atlantic from Oporto, Portugal to New York, N.Y., in the Portugese freighter San Miguel. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic I heard the engines stop and came up on deck to see what was happening. I found that the ship had stopped and that we were surrounded by three flower class corvettes. Signal flags fluttered up and down and the captain translated for us. They asked who we were and where we were going. We replied that we were the Portugese freighter San Miguel out of Oporto bound for New York with a cargo of cork and port wine. They looked us over and then said "you may proceed", whereupon the three corvettes swung gracefully away and were soon lost in the murk.
Just a few comments about this incident.
I was surprised at how small the corvettes were. We were 2,500 tons, which I thought was small, but these corvettes were around 800 tons which was much smaller than we were.
The corvettes were painted all grey. I have seen pictures of early models in World War I type dazzle paint, but there was no dazzle paint on these corvettes.
They must have been pretty sure we were harmless because their main armament was pointed fore and aft and not at us. They may have had us covered with their Oerlikons. I have no recollection of it but as they were only about 100 yards off they could have cleared our decks pretty fast.
The most intriguing part of this story is how they managed to find us with the visibility down to a few hundred yards. I understand that in July of l941 the first dozen flower class corvettes were equipped with radar. So these three may have been among the first to be so equipped.
Finally, I may say that I found them to be very graceful ships. I have heard horror stories about how uncomfortable flower class corvettes were with their trawler hulls, rolling and pitching. All I can say is they looked like greyhounds to me.
Sincerely yours, Stefan Schreier, Boise, Idaho, USA.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the most prolonged and decisive battle of the Second World War. It began on the day that war broke out and only ended with the defeat of Germany: 175 Allied warships and 5,400 merchant ships of 21 million tonnage were sunk and tens of thousands of mostly British lives were lost in the Atlantic alone. The German U-boat service lost 900 U-boats and over 30,000 men.
One evening, in mid-August 1941 when the Battle of the Atlantic was at its height, I was serving as a 21-year-old officer of the watch on the bridge of the Flower Class corvette HMS Veronica - part of the close escort of a Clyde and Mersey-bound eight-knot convoy of 72 merchant ships carrying war supplies from the New World.
We were somewhere south-west of Iceland and as I looked towards the horizon I beheld a battleship escorted by eight fleet destroyers steaming towards us. Our yeoman signalman read the hoist of signal flags streaming from her halyards and turning to me with a beaming face said: "Good voyage, Churchill".
Within minutes every man of every ship in the convoy had crowded to the guardrails and was waving and shouting "good old Winnie" as the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and her eight destroyers sped through the convoy at 22 knots. It was a proud and emotional moment for everyone at a time when patriotism was an unquestioned part of us all.
The force was on its way back from Churchill's momentous meeting with President Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland (then Britain's oldest coVony - now of course part of Canada) where the Atlantic Treaty, the cornerstone of the United Nations Charter, was signed `promising that all men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want'.
Having overhauled our convoy Churchill was so moved and delighted that he requested that the Prince of Wales should be swung round and the whole operation repeated. We could barely discern him on the forebridge but we knew that he was there among us with his hand raised in the familiar `V' sign. It gave us a huge morale boost out there in the North Atlantic. One is told that on such emotive occasions Churchill's eyes always filled with tears. I can well believe it as we were pretty keyed up ourselves.
Following the loss of the Hood in May and the ever-increasing losses in merchant shipping, Churchill had shown a great gesture of confidence in the Royal and Merchant Navies by choosing to cross the Atlantic by sea. He knew more than anyone that the Battle of the Atlantic was the linchpin to the entire war in Europe and that the loss of that battle would result in the loss of the war.
As the Prince of Wales and her escorts disappeared over the horizon we little thought that within a few months the great battleship and many of her brave crew would lie at the bottom of the Gulf of Siam, together with the Repulse, that it would be another four long years before the war in Europe would end or that the man whom we had just so reverently cheered and who would lead us to victory would himself be rejected and not asked to lead us into the ensuing peace.
John Beardmore Ex-HMS Veronica
The convoy was eastbound for the UK and three-quarters the way over when we ran into one hell of a storm that had Arvida bouncing about, rising and plunging on every wave.Darkness closed in with no let up in the wind or seas, making it a small miracle when our starboard lookout spotted a small light off the stern of one of the convoy ships. The small, flashing light seemed to come from somebody or something in the water.
"Man overboard" was sounded on Arvida as we came about and made for the light, fighting our way through the waves and picking the man up with difficulty. Safely on Arvida, it was found the man was a Russian merchant seaman who couldn't understand English. By a stroke of luck, we had a lad in the crew who could both speak and knew Russian and, after calming the fellow down, he was able to get a story from him that sounded very much like a James Bond movie plot.
The Russian said that messages were being passed to U-boats as to our intended direction, cargo and speed by way of putting the information in a capsule,which was then put into a monkey. The monkey was then set adrift on a small raft to be picked up by a trailing sub when the convoy had moved off. The Russian said he had come on two fellows in the process of doing this and they had attacked him, forcing him into leaping overboard to get away from them, luckily with his lifejacket on. As much as it sounded like a cock and bull story, the offending merchant ship was sorted out of the convoy and taken to one side where an Arvida boarding party went over her, top to bottom. Seeming to verify the Russian seaman's story, several caged monkeys were found that were not on the ship's manifest and couldn't be explained away.
Within two days after this incident, the convoy came under attack and two ships were lost. We heard no more on the monkey incident after this but the whole thing, to us, seemed proof enough that stories of convoy ships attempting to drop astern to fuel and supply enemy subs could be true. It was always easy enough to fake engine trouble and an escort was only rarely left behind with the merchant.
E. O'Connor HMCS Arvida
I was a young boy of about 13 in the latter part of 1941 living in Argentia, Newfoundland, (then a crown colony) with my family. My father was a civilian working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who were building an army base just across the way from the U.S. Naval Air Station (also under construction). Argentia, as you may recall, was the place where Churchill and Roosevelt had met in the summer.
You can well imagine the wide-eyed interest I took in the comings and goings all of the ships, both warships and merchant vessels, some with huge holes in the from torpedo hits and the general excitement of a wartime atmosphere. The warships included American, British, Canadian, Free French, Polish, Norwegian, Dutch and Belgian. The merchant vessels, likewise, represented the spectrum, too. "Newfie" fishing schooners abounded, as well. (Just after the war, I, too, joined the U.S. Navy and served on a battleship, the U.S.S.North Carolina.)
If you were there during the war, you will remember that Argentia was not exactly the liveliest place for sailors to find diversion of any sort. One day, I happened to be outside near our house and came upon three Royal Navy officers taking a stroll. I invited them to our house, where my mother made them welcome, fed them and provided them with drinks By way of thanks, they invited us aboard their ship, HMS Sweetbriar, and we all found it immensely interesting. I can remember the name of only one of the officers -- my mother kept his card -- it was a Lieutenant Ommaney. I remembered the name because it sounded unusual to me.
I have read the Cruel Sea and several other books relating to corvettes in the war and I can only imagine what a physical beating the crews of the corvettes took during rough weather. I can only say that my admiration for those crews is very great, indeed.
Anyway, there it is.
Bill Faulkner, Falls Church, Virginia, Story 4
My first story begins as a young sailor. I was just turned 18 years old and was sent to HMS Duke, a naval training establishment in Malvern, Worcester for the first part of my stoker’s course.
After my initial training, I was sent to HMS Revenge, a battleship moored on the Clyde in Scotland. There I was to finish my stoker’s course as an acting First Class Stoker. During training the Revenge was sent to Devonport. This proved to be a great help in my training as I spent much time during the voyage in both the engie room and the boiler room. After Devonport I was sent to HMS Victory a barracks in Portsmouth. I was only here for a short while and was then sent ,with other seamen, to Sheerness Dock. There I boearded a corvette, HMS Armeria.
Now for the sorrow: On my first convoy duty in the Atlantic our ship passed a tanker on fire. On board the tanker we could see and hear seamen screaming or jumping into the sea. The sea was ablaze with burning oil and the whole scene horrified me. As my watch was not on duty below, I was on deck and I confess to becoming very upset by the scenes unfolding before me. Our ship just sailed on and I was devastated to realise that we were not stopping. I wanted to help and I wondered why we were not assisting in some way. Despite my 19 years of age I cried.
The next day I was sent for and was told by the Chief Engineer that a young sub lieutenant who had noticed my distress and discussed the incident with him. The Chief Engineer explained that, if Captain D in the leading destroyer had sent one of the escort vessels to the aid of the tanker, there would have been a gap in the convoy defences and the U-boat that was undoubtedly nearby could possibly sink one or more of the ships we were protecting. He pointed out that by the Captain’s actions, more lives had been saved. I now understood the reson for the decision, but I will never forget the sight and sounds of those poor seamen who I saw perish at sea.
Now for the laughter; Amidst the sorrow, danger and harships, there was always laughter. Here are two stories which still make me smile,
Firstly let me explain the victual ling arrangements on board Armeria,as this will help explain the laughter part of my story. It is called canteen messing. Each sailor gets an allowance ans sometimes your mess overspent and other times you could be in credit. A member of the mess was sent ashore to the NAAFI stores and made his choice of victuals which was then delivered by boat to the bouy at which your ship was moored. Cookng arrangements were then undertaked in turn when duties allowed, but at other times someone might volunteer. One day a stoker from our mess made a lovely tart. He put it up on deck to cool off and set. When he went back a short while later, someone had helped themselves to a very large slice !
Not guilt !!!
Secondly, whilst on patrol duty in the Atlantic, Action Stations was sounded. Stokers not on duty below either helped the gun crews or, as in my case, the dpth charge party. After releasing a few depth charges over the side as instructed, I was astonished to see hundreds of fish come to the surface. Some were dead others stunned. Those of us on deck used everything we could muster to get the fish on board,and although it was a false alarm, we happily lived on fish for the next week.
I am now 84 years old and these stories and many more events that happened to me whilst serving in the Royal Navy will be with me forever.
Thomas Walford, Stoker 1st.Class.