Following Father's Footsteps
The Life and Career of a former Ganges Boy
by Roy Pickard
My father, Harold Pickard, was born on 3.2.1908 at Byker, Newcastle-on-Tyne. His father, Thomas Pickard, from Alnwick, was a soldier in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. His mother was Mary Elizabeth Buttle, from Stockton-on-Tees, who was 'in service' at Newcastle before marriage. My father was the eldest of 6 children; he had 5 sisters. He attended elementary schools until the age of 14 when he became a messenger for a local shop, delivering orders by bicycle. His father wanted him to join the Army but Dad wanted to join the Navy so he asked his mother to sign the Papers to go into Boy Service.
PRELUDE TO WAR
On 18.10.38 he joined the Tribal Class Destroyer 'HMS Gurkha' which was commissioned at Govan on the Clyde on 21.10.38. During November she received final fittings and repairs then went on final trials. In December she sailed for Malta arriving 20.12.38 where she joined 'HMS Alfridi'. They worked mostly together, I understand, on contraband duties.
Dad became a Control Rating 2 on 15.2.39 and on 23.2.39 the 2 ships sailed to Gib for Med and Home Fleets combined exercises from 28.2 to 3.3.39 and again from 6.3. to 10.3.39 which were followed by Staff Conferences. On 18.3.39 the fleets began to disperse. The Home Fleet returned to the UK for Easter. 'HMS Gurkha' was despatched to Almena and Cartagena to visit British Consuls, then returned to Gib and was joined by 'HMS Sikh' to sail to Palma and Malta. During this voyage they carried out towing exercises but they collided causing minor damage to both ships, which were repaired at Malta. On 7.4.39 'Alfridi' and 'Gurkha' went on separate contraband control duties but during April and May 'Gurkha' sailed around the Greek Islands for the Albanian Crisis. On 7.7.39 'Gurkha', 'Alfridi', 'Mohawk' and 'Sikh' visited Athens to accompany the Aircraft carrier 'Glorious'. They returned to Malta at the end of July. (It was during these times in Malta that Dad again visited my Uncle Cyril who by now had 4 children and had lost his wife. Dad started procedures to adopt my cousin Emma, who was 3 years old.) In early August 'Gurkha' took part in exercises off Crete and Cyprus. On 15.8.39 'Alfridi' and'Gurkha' with 'Mohawk' and 'Sikh' escorted four 'G' class Destroyers through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea. Then on 3.9.39 the ship's Tannoy blasted out "TOTAL GERMANY".
THE WAR YEARS
The four ships on escort duty made a fast return to the UK and Dad was made AIPQ on 6.9.39. (The War put a stop to the adoption procedures for Emma because all passenger voyages were cancelled.) These four ships joined the Home Fleet for Blockade Controls and Convoy Escort duties in the North Sea - part of the Humber Striking Force based at Immingham. 'Gurkha' then went on to the Atlantic for more Convoy Escort duties until December when she escorted'Rodney' to Liverpool for repairs to her steering gear. But 'Gurkha' developed turbine trouble with her engines so sailed round to Southampton for engine repairs at Vosper Thorneycroft.
Mother took Wendy and me to Southampton to see Dad and I can vaguely remember walking from Woolston Station, past VT, to our B&B digs for several weeks. 'Gurkha' rejoined the Home Fleet and on 8.2.40, with 'Nubian', went hunting for U-Boats off Scapa Flow and on 12.2.40 another U-Boat hunt off Norway while escorting a Convoy. On 21.2.40 'Gurkha' caused the destruction of U-Boat No 53 jointly with the French Destroyer, 'Le Fantasque'. On 8.3.40, during a snowstorm at sea, 'Gurkha' and 'Nubian' were escorting a southbound Norwegian convoy off Shetlands when they met a northbound Norwegian convoy and 'Gurkha's' propeller gashed a hole in 'Kelly's' bow. On 7.4.40 'Gurkha' sailed from Rosyth with 'Alfridi' and a force of Destroyers and Cruisers meeting up with the Home Fleet on 9.4.40. They were later detached to attack Bergen but were recalled. At 1400 hours the force was attacked by German Bombers. The violent weather prevented adequate AA defence. 'Gurkha' came round onto a better course which promised better results but it meant that she became detached from the convoy and out of the smoke screen. The enemy aircraft immediately concentrated on her. One of the bombs hit aft blowing a 40ft hole in the starboard side. At 19.00 she rolled over and sank. (I eventually made contact with Bill Parkes - through Navy News - who was a US with Dad on the 'Gurkha'and he told me that they were in the sea for 4 hours. A submarine surfaced, fortunately British, and took the officers on board - that was 'HMS Seal'. The men were told that a ship was on its way. 'HMS Aurora' picked them up and took them to Thurso. They were all put on a train the next morning and were taken direct to Devonport, arriving late evening, where a fish and chips supper was ready for them.) This was the first of 7 such Bomb/salvo/torpedo incidents that Dad encountered during the War. Incidentally, Bill Parkes later joined 'HMS Hermione' and was eventually posted to Canada.
RETREAT FROM DUNKIRK
Although the survivors were now based in Devonport, this meant that they were available for any emergency...and they didn't have to wait Iong. Operation Dynamo (Retreat from Dunkirk) needed all the men that were available and there wasn't time to keep service records up to date. But I remember my Mother telling me that Dad was there and that the ship he was on sank because a bomb dropped down the funnel and blew up the Engine Room. During my research I borrowed books from the Library and soon discovered that this was the Destroyer 'HMS Keith'.The survivors were picked up by the Admiralty Tug, 'St Abbs', which was sunk an hour later (2nd and 3rd incidents). The remaining survivors swam to the wreck of the 'Clan MacAlister' and were picked up 11 hours later by the Tug, 'Sun Xl' and taken to Dover - Dad amongst them, presumably, and he eventually returned to 'HMS Drake', but I don't know when. However, his service record does show that he was made substantive P0 on 6.9.40 and qualified as a Control Rating I on 28.11.40. Dad was soon at Sea again for more action.
The Battleship 'HMS Prince of Wales' was commissioned at Birkenhead, on the Mersey, on 18.1.41 and sailed to Rosyth on 28.1.41 anchoring in the Firth of Forth. Dad joined her there on 15.2.41. She sailed up to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys on 24.2.41 for "working" exercises. This lasted only 7 weeks because an emergency arose. Several civilians were still on board, employees of the Gunsmiths, setting the guns which were not yet ready for action. However, the German Battleship 'Bismark' and the Cruiser 'Prinz Eugen' had been spotted leaving Bergen heading for the Atlantic. They laid in wait in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, ready to attack convoys of supply ships from USA to Britain. The 'Prince of Wales'and the 'Hood', along with Destroyers' Electr'a, 'Echo', 'Norfolk' and 'Suffolk', sailed from Scapa Flow on 21.5.41. 'Bismark' was sighted at 1930 hours on 23.5.41. Action commenced early the next morning. 'Prinz Eugen' hit 'Hood's' Magazine amidships so she exploded and sank in two minutes with only 3 survivors, who were picked up by 'Norfolk'. 'Prince of Wales' guns were still not set properly so kept missing 'Bismark' but did manage to score one hit which damaged her rudder and caused an oil leak. 'Prince of Wales' was hit 7 times by 'Bismark', one salvo going through the Bridge killing several officers. Because of the bad weather conditions, Dad was on the Air Observation Platform to do the Range Taking for the A & B turret guns, so he was stranded for a while (his 4th incident). The attack was eventually aborted and 'Bismark' slipped away. 'Prinz Eugen' managed to escape to Brest. 'Bismark' was spotted again on 26.5.41 by Catalinas of Coastal Command and she was leaving an oil trail. She was eventually sunk by'HMS Dorsetshire' on 27.5.41. 'Prince of Wales' later anchored off Hvalfjord, Iceland for repairs and oiling before going on to Rosyth for repairs to the Bridge from 30.5.41 to 19.7.41, when she then returned to Scapa Flow until the end of July.
ATLANTIC CONFERENCE & OPERATION HALBERD
On 1.8.41 she was fitted out as a Flag Ship ready for Churchill joining her on 4.8.41 for the famous Atlantic Conference with Roosevelt. The ship paid a courtesy visit to Reykjavik on the way to Placentia Bay, off New Foundland. After the Conference, they returned to Scapa Flow arriving on 18.8.41. Not for long, though, as she sailed for the Med. on 15.9.41 to take part in Operation Halberd as an escort for the transport of troops and supplies to Malta. On this voyage they were attacked by Italian aircraft but returned safely to Scapa Flow on 6.10.41. Then on 20.10.41 they took on ammunition and supplies before sailing to the Clyde.
DANCING WITH DEATH & THE END OF THE BATTLESHIP ERA
Admiral Phillips boarded her on 23.10.41 at Greenock and she sailed for the Far East on 25.10.41 calling at Freetown and Cape Town where, as she sailed in, the Aircraft Carrier 'HMS Hermes' sailed out of Simon's Town. Meanwhile, the new Aircraft Carrier 'HMS Indomitable' was 'working-up' off Bermuda, making ready to join 'Prince of Wales' at Singapore, but she ran aground and was diverted to Florida for repairs. The question was, "should 'Hermes' have been diverted to Singapore?" but, I now understand, she was too small to be considered suitable. My mother took me to the Cinema often to see the Newsreels for news of Dad's whereabouts and we saw one of the 'Prince of Wales' arriving at Cape Town and another of Dad getting off the ship and he waved to the camera. Meanwhile, 'HMS Repulse' was at Durban before going on to Ceylon, where later, she was joined by 'Prince of Wales'. They both arrived at Singapore on 2.12.41 and were joined by the other ships that were to form Force Z - Destroyers 'Electra', 'Express', 'Tenedos', and 'HMAS Vampire'. On 8.12.41, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Force Z set sail for the South China Sea because of reports that Japanese troops were landing at Kota Baharu on the north-east coast of Malaya. They were without air cover but the sky was cloudy. Force Z kept changing course due to varying reports of sightings. 'HMS Tenedos' had to return to Singapore because she was short on fuel. On 10.12.41 the cloud dispersed just as a Japanese Bomber Squadron flew overhead. Both the 'Prince of Wales' and the 'Repulse' were sunk off Kuantan. Dad survived again (his 5th incident). 'Prince of Wales' survivors were rescued by 'HMS Express'; 'Repulse' survivors were rescued by 'HMS Electra'and 'HMAS Vampire'. Whilst this was happening, the Japanese Squadron Leader flew back over the scene and dropped two wreaths over the site of the sinkings. Survivors were taken to Singapore and became part of the Naval Base, 'HMS Sultan'. Dad, sent us a telegram but it took a long time to reach us in Plymouth. Years later I was told that there was a queue of about 2000 waiting to send a telegram. Dad did Guard Duty at 'Sultan' for a while before being sent to Singapore Docks and he just happened to bump into his cousin Tommy Pickard. The situation in Singapore gradually worsened and on 12.2.42 Dad became one of the crew of a requisitioned boat, the 'Kung We', to evacuate mainly civilians and nurses.
ESCAPE FROM SINGAPORE
The 'Kung We' belonged to the lndo-China Steam Navigation Co. managed by Jardines. It sailed at midnight along with two other requisitioned boats called 'Lien Kuang' and 'Kual'.'Another 3 left later that night - the 'Ping Wo', 'Shuan Quan' and 'Mata Hari' - similarly requisitioned. All 6 were sunk by Japanese fighter bombers the next morning (the 6th incident). Survivors of the 'Kung We' managed to get to Benku (Bengkoe) Island by lifeboat, whilst those from 'Lien Kuang' and 'Kuala' got to Pompong Island, but as some of them were climbing up the cliff face, Japanese fighter planes swooped in and shot them. Their story can be read in more detail in Geoffrey Brooke's book 'Singapore's Dunkirk' - ISBN 0-85052-051-7, which has recently been re-published (but maybe with a new ISBN?). Singapore fell on 15.2.42. However, the remaining survivors were rescued, after one week on the islands, by the Sultan of Jahore's Yacht, and taken to Dabo on Sinkep Island where, on 21.2.42, they were transferred to river boats which took them up the lndragiri River, eastern Sumatra, arriving at Prigi Raja on 22nd and at Lambilahan by midnight, continuing on to Rengat on 23rd, arriving at Iyer Molek on 24th. The rest of the Journey across Sumatra was by road to Sawaiunto and then by train to Padang. The full story of this journey is also given in Richard Gough's book 'Escape from Singapore' - ISBN 0-7183-0655-4. Geoffrey Brooke has since retraced this journey and has given me photos of each of the overnight stopping points.
PRISONERS OF WAR
At Padang, it was hoped to get on board Naval vessels from Ceylon but the Japanese bombers were waiting until the boats were full and sank them after they left harbour, thus no more ships came into Padang, leaving 500 men and women stranded. These were all taken prisoners on about 5.3.42. Most, including Dad, were taken by road to Medan and interned at Gluger Camp (there are various spellings of this name). I belong to the Far East Prisoners of War Association and since moving to Southampton have attended meetings but there are no Naval members so I have often attended meetings of the Portsmouth Branch. I met Len Williams there and he was in the same camp so was able to tell me that they were kept busy from 6.OOam to 10.OOpm every day on slave labour, firstly building Pagodas for the Japanese to use for their worship; loading and unloading ships at Medan's port, Belawen, and on building a road to Banda Aceh in the far north-west corner of Sumatra (the area of the Dec 2004 Tsunami disaster). This was intended to be a 'jumping off' point for the Japanese to invade Burma. However, a few days after the road was finished, the Monsoons came and broke it all up. (Divine intervention?) I am grateful to Len for this information - and there is more later. Len did not know Dad but pointed out that they were all so tired when they got back to their hut, they just went to sleep, so did not get to know many of the other men in the same hut. Life in the camp continued with daily hard labour but there were some lighter moments because one of the official prisoners was a dog called Judy ( mascot on 'HMS Grasshopper') who helped to outwit the Guards on several occasions. Her story is told in another book - 'The Judy Story' by E. Varley - ISBN 0-285-62121-1. She was awarded the Canine VC after the War.
THE HELL SHIP
One of the quirks of War was that, because the Japanese refused to sign the Geneva Convention and thus did not fly the Red Cross Flag when carrying prisoners of war on Transport Ships, 13 of these were torpedoed and sunk by allied submarines, ships or aircraft. Such was the case with the 'Harukiku Maru' (formerly the 'SS Van Waerwijk') scuttled by the Dutch but refloated by the Japanese. Late on 25.6.44, the prisoners at Gluger Camp embarked on this ship which was part of a convoy heading for Japan. The next morning the British Submarine'HMS Truculent' fired 2 torpedoes, one of which sank the 'Harukiku Maru'. This was recorded in the Log and the Sub dived. Unknown to them, the second sank one of the fuel tankers in the convoy a few minutes later. Many of the prisoners lost their lives including Dad. This was his 7th incident but it was not a 'lucky 7' for him. Len Williams was on deck for exercise when the torpedo hit; he saw it coming and jumped over the side. The survivors eventually managed to struggle aboard the other ships in the convoy, some with the help of Judy bringing pieces of floating materials to those who were struggling in the water. The remaining ships went to Singapore where orders were changed. The Burma railway was finished so the Japs were moving all the Engineers and equipment to Sumatra. The prisoners were also taken back to Sumatra, down the east coast, and were put to work on the Pekanbaru Railway until the Japanese surrender on 15.8.45. Apparently, the railway was finished 3 days before the Surrender but was overgrown by the jungle again within 3 months. (Incidentally, Len later served on 'HMS Amethyst' and was involved in the Yangtse incident. He ended his career on the Royal Yacht 'Britannia', as did my friend Tony Grimmer of the Ganges Association.)
AFTERMATH OF THE WAR
When the War ended in August 1945, surviving Prisoners were in a terrible state of health (like walking skeletons) and needed medical treatment for malnutrition and Tropical Diseases for at least 3 months, in most cases, before they were fit enough to be brought home to Britain. As men arrived home in early 1946, we were still waiting to hear news about Dad. Eventually, we were told that he was 'missing' - then later that he was 'missing presumed dead' - and then that, on reliable information, he had died whilst a prisoner of war. Several men who returned visited mother to tell her how he had died with the sinking of the 'Harukiku Maru' but there were three varying accounts: 1) that he was in the part of the ship that got hit by the torpedo and could not have survived; that he was helping to save other lives and either, 2) got so badly covered in oil that he died from skin suffocation or, 3) left it too late to save himself, so was drowned by suction when the ship sank. They were kind and meant well but we were still not sure of the real situation, except that he died with the sinking of the 'Harukiku Maru'. However, the latter story (3) was confirmed by a Dutch Naval Officer, Lt D. Herstel, who wrote to mother in 1953. When we were eventually sent official confirmation, in August 1946, it was more than 2 years after his death. The cause of death on his Death Certificate is 'Killed in Action.' His official grave is the Naval War Memorial on Plymouth Hoe, but his real grave is the wreck of the 'SS Van Waerwijk' ('Harukiku Maru') at Lat 3.1 SN, Long 99.47E in the Malacca Strait, off Tanjungbalai. The wreck is regarded as a Shipping Hazard because the masts are visible only at low tide - according to information received from the Dutch Navy.
1. The 'Prince of Wales' carried two Walrus Seaplanes and their crews on board. The 'Repulse' carried only one which was catapulted into flight a short while before the Japanese attack on Force Z. After reconnaisance over the east coast of Malaya searching for troop landings, the pilot returned to the scene. Noticing the carnage he had to divert to Singapore but ran out of fuel 60 miles short, so had to be towed the rest of the way. The Walrus Seaplanes were built in Southampton just a short distance up the River ltchen from Vosper Thomeycroft, where 'HMS Gurkha' had her turbine engines repaired.
2. Whilst researching my father's Naval Career, I made contact with a member of the crew of'HMS Truculent'. He had responded to a notice I put in the Navy News and informed me that after sinking the Hell Ship the Japanese dropped Depth Charges and one of them damaged one of their engines. One of the crew had worked for the firm who had made the engines so he volunteered to go outside the submarine, in diving gear, to have a look at the damage. He found that the casing had a hole in it so went back into the submarine to find material to block the hole. This he did with a block of wood and they were able to return to Colombo, in Ceylon but it took them 3 weeks. It was on arrival at Colombo that they learned about allied prisoners being on board 'Haruiku Maru'. (177 died - but 543 survived.) The Captain of the submarine had a nervous breakdown and eventually committed suicide over the experience - according to the crew member, Eddie Brown, who contacted me.
3. Four of Dad's sisters were in the Services during the War; (Lucy was already married);Bessie and Nancy were in the WRNS - both married sailors; Jean and Joyce were in theWAAF - both married Airmen. Joyce is now over 80 and lives on Jersey.
4. Details of ships' movements were taken from Ships' Logs at the Public Records Office, except for 1941 in respect of 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse', which were lost with those Ships.
It was hard for us as a family watching other men come home to rejoin their families - and mother's income dropped drastically. She had to go out to work to earn enough to raise my sister and me while our Grandmother looked after us during the day. This was the same for many War Widows. Mother got moral support by joining the War Widow's Guild which was formed by the Head of the Community Services Council in Plymouth. She also joined the Far East Prisoners of War Association, when it was formed in 19S4, after the survivors were well enough to organise things. Now, in 2005, the organisation has officially disbanded but former branches continue to meet for informal social gatherings and I consider it a privilege to be accepted as an associate member of their fraternity. I still attend meetings occasionally at Plymouth and Portsmouth, but more regularly at Southampton.
Prepared - December 2005 - Roy Pickard