Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
Postscript - The story of the Gunnery Officers Box
This box belonged to Commander Warwick Seymour Bracegirdle RAN, DSC and two bars, mentioned in dispatches (twice) and US Legion of Merit (Degree of Officer - with Combat Star). There are only two other RAN officers ever who have been awarded three DSCs. He was a very brave man. More about that later.
I don't know exactly where the box was made but certainly by the RAN Shipwrights. In faded lettering it had "Lieut. Cdr." and the "Lieut." had been crossed out so it must have been before 30 June 1947 when he was promoted to Commander. Since he was promoted Lieut. Cdr. in December 1942 it may have been made during his time as Gunnery Officer of HMAS SHROPSHIRE, when it was necessary for him to have instance access to Gunnery details, range tables, and other data. It is amazing that it has survived for more than 50 years. It is cracked and battered but serviceable.
So, it is no ordinary box and I shall explain why.
I was very sad when he died suddenly in March 1993 and I took the fastest hire car to Suffolk the morning after he died. I found my step-mother completely distraught and almost unable to function. I made her supper that night and sent her to bed. Then I sat down at his desk for more than 8 hours and went through all his papers. It was nearly dawn when I had finished sorting them out. I did not know what to expect.
He had more friends than I shall ever wish to count. Wonderful letters from all over the world from his friends, mainly his men in the Gunnery Departments of the three fighting ships that he had served in - HMAS PERTH, HMAS SHROPSHIRE and later as Captain of HMAS BATAAN. There were many details of the ship associations, stories and photos and cards from all over Australia.
There were more than 10 letters from Prince Philip and Lord Louis Mountbatten, many in their own handwriting. There was a copy of his Will in which he left to me (his second son!) almost all of his naval memorabilia and, most important of all, all of his decorations and those of my Grandfather who won a DSO under fire at Gallipoli. He had almost no money and a year before he died, he sold his silver Kings Medal awarded for attaining the honour of the best all-round cadet at the Jervis Bay Naval College. Spinks paid him A$3,000 for that and he never asked me for financial help on that occasion. Pity, because I can't buy it back now.
Before his 80th birthday in December 1991 I contacted the three ship associations and the St. Barbara Australian Gunnery Officer's Association to ask them for a few messages of good will. The response was overwhelming. After 10 weeks I had more messages than would fit into two large volumes and congratulations from Prince Philip too. On his birthday I gave him the two volumes with all of the 185 messages and a wonderful illustrated birthday card from the HMAS SHROPSHIRE Association mounted with the letter from the Palace alongside it. At 3 o'clock in the morning that night Polly, my stepmother, found him in tears at his desk reading all the messages from his friends!
As you might imagine his funeral a week after he died was a tough act for me, Polly, my mother, Gaea my niece, and Saul, my nephew, who was very distressed. However, the beautiful church at Gislingham, Suffolk was overflowing - from Lord Henneky to the charlady and the church had just been re-opened after 3 years of renovations. The RAN came in strength and all three RAN officers attended from Australia House with an RAN ensign flown over especially from Sydney. You can also guess who the telemessage from Buckingham Palace was from! He didn't forget.
Some days later I received a message from the HMAS SHROPSHIRE Association President. "We're not standing for a Pommy funeral" - Harry Wakeham said to me - "We would like you to come to our own memorial service in Sydney in April". So I cashed in all my savings and in April 1963 (Good Friday) flew Cathay Pacific on a 32 hour journey to Sydney. Exhausted, I went to sleep for 10 hours at my brother's house in Stanwell Park, south of Sydney. On Easter Monday I moved up to Sydney to HMAS KUTTABUL where I had asked for a bed as a Lieut. Cdr (RNR) - any old place would do - close to the naval chapel in the Dockyard nearby.
As I checked in to the Wardroom, the Chief Steward said - "Oh, we've put you in the Admiral's cabin, Sir - is that all right?" (!!!!) The next day I saw the Chaplain, Rev. Gareth Clayton: "I have a message for you from the Governor (HM representative in NSW!). Admiral Sinclair can't come but his ADC will attend as his personal representative". (Crikey sez I what is going on?!) The next day after I ushered all of his 90 friends to the pews in the little naval chapel and I gave the family thanks with seven pairs of admirals' eyes drilling me from the front pews. There are only about 20 Admirals alive in the whole RAN! After the service, 25 or so friends came back to the Wardroom for drinks and steak sandwiches for lunch. After 3 days stay and two lunches plus many drinks the mess accountant charged me 55 Australian dollars for the entire stay - say 28 pounds!!!
That was a wonderful experience and I flew back to London elated that he had been laid to rest in such a fine manner. Cathay upgraded me to business class and I got 6 hours sleep over Afghanistan and Moscow. (Luckily the KGB didn't know that I was flying over! I saw the lights of Moscow though from 55,000 feet up!!)
In about June 1993 I went to see Polly to collect all of Dad's things. I took all of the uniforms, pictures and medals that he had left to me and all of the papers but some sixth sense made me go to the bottom of the garden into the old barn - unused for many years. I cut the brambles away from the door. In a rusty tin trunk I found his naval greatcoat covered with mildew, which I washed off and now is a perfectly good coat for fireworks nights.
On the straw in the barn was the box. If it had been on the earth it would have rotted away. As it was, the bottom made of plywood has now delaminated and I have had to replace it. The RAN would not have approved of MDF but there it is. I wonder if he meant me to find it there.
Inside the box were a wonderful set of papers, mainly classified CONFIDENTIAL or SECRET. There were the reports of proceedings of most of the battles that he had taken part in, photos of the evacuation of Crete. Details of the bombardment of Beirut by HMAS PERTH and "OPERATION ROUNDUP", when BATAAN landed 150 commandos in enemy territory in North Korea in 1953. There were original signals from the Battle of Matapan in 1941 including one from Winston Churchill to PERTH.. There were faded and mildewed photos from 50 years ago including a pretty bad day off Crete when the Luftwaffe sank 5 British and Commonwealth ships in 48 hours. There were photos of near misses by 500 lb bombs including the one that made a direct hit on PERTH with Dad only 70 feet away on the bridge. There was a photo of HMS JUNO blowing up after a German bomb had hit her magazine.
Dad was not a Head of Department in PERTH or SHROPSHIRE but the Gunnery Office was one of the most important members of the ship's company because he headed the "fighting machine". So the Captain gave him copies of all of the reports of proceedings of the battles. Dad should not have kept them because some of them were SECRET. However, he probably had the box made to house the classified papers so that he could move them from the Bridge or Gunnery Direction Platform and when he left BATAAN as the Commanding Officer no one questioned the Captain's right to take his box with him ashore! No one would have dared! So the box eventually came to England after years in the Arafura Sea, the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, where it was cold enough to turn seawater to ice. It was lucky that I found it.
After I had dried out the contents carefully, I sorted them all out and made a present of the papers to the RAN after taking copies of the more exciting parts. They were delighted to received the papers and also my Grandfather's medals which are displayed at the Australian War memorial in Canberra together with my Dad's decorations. There are normally only VCs displayed there so this family display will be quite unusual.
So the box has memories of the time on 7 July 1944 in Seedler Harbour (3 weeks before I was born) when Dad briefed the entire Gunnery Department about moving up into "Tiger Country" - he was damn right too!
No doubt it housed countless firing orders and reports of proceedings that took place in the Admiralty Islands off Hollandia and Biak New Guinea in 1944 and 1945.
On the morning of 20 October 1944 Dad had the morning watch on the bridge of SHROPSHIRE, when a large mine became entangled in the bow paravane and was 30 feet from the port side. Very quietly he alerted the Damage Control Officer who cleared all ratings from the port side messdecks. Captain Nichols woke up, turned up on the bridge in his pyjamas. "What a beauty!" he said. "Well done Port look-out" and then he went back to sleep clearly happy that his crew could solve any problem, which of course they did. (I have Captain Nichol's naval blazer which I am very proud to wear.)
Then the night of 25 October 1944 when in 20 minutes SHROPSHIRE and a large American Task Force routed a large Japanese task force. At 18,000 yards SHROPSHIRE'S 8" guns scored hits in most of her broadsides that night. Able Seaman Tubby Wellard won his DSM by hand-loading cordite into the breech of an 8" gun every time risking his arm - that's how he won his DSM. Captain Nichols was awarded the DSO and Dad won his second DSC that night in a gun action that was perhaps one of the greatest in the history of any navy.
Earlier that night Commander Mike Buchanan in HMAS ARUNTA (2000 tonne destroyer) attacked a 25,000 tonne IJN Battleship "YAMASHIRO" at 25 knots closing to 6000 yards and during 5 minutes the squadron fired 29 torpedoes at the enemy and then retired at high speed. Wow!
There were greater perils later in Lingayen Gulf, Philippines after the full landings at Manila and Corrigedor Island. At 1829 on 6 January 1945 Leading Seaman Roy Cazaly was Captain of the 8 barrelled port pom-pom gun onboard HMAS SHROPSHIRE when a Kamikaze dived on the ship at about 60 degrees. Cazaly shot the wings off with his pom-pom and managed to break the aircraft in two as it almost hit the ship. The plane and its bomb split in two and straddled the ship. Cazaly (also awarded the DSM) died recently and his widow wrote me a charming reply saying that she had almost 200 letters from the SHROPSHIRE.
During the period there were countless attacks on the ship. The box may have been there for them all. SHROPSHIRE was a lucky, lucky ship and, apart from shrapnel, was never hit seriously. It was almost certainly due to the team spirit of the Gunnery Department. Her sister ship, HMAS AUSTRALIA, copped a kamikaze on the bridge on 21 October 1944 killing 10 including the husband of a great friend of ours, Bib Gerrett. She has been a widow for 50 years. They were brave, brave men and until 1991 I never really knew what had happened.
Later, in 1951/52 HMAS BATAAN went for a 9 month tour of duty to Korea and made dashes at night to bombard enemy positions. One day the Captain's cabin was hit with a 155mm enemy shell and the shrapnel ruined his tail coat - Admiral Scott-Moncrieff sent a message: "Sorry to hear about your tail, Braces!" The box housed all of the Captain's night order books for that period.
So, in about 1955, the box probably came to England in our luggage with us on the TS Southern Cross. It may have remained with us in Sussex at Haywards Heath in the late 1950s. Anyway, I never saw it there. In about 1963 Mum and Dad divorced and he must have taken the box to Paros and then on to Emsworth, where he lived for 4 years or so. In about 1970, Polly and he moved to Suffolk where the box and its fascinating contents remained until I found it in 1993. How did it survive all those journeys?
The box has the memories of brave, fearless and determined men who through their efforts fought their way up through New Guinea and beyond and freed the Pacific. SHROPSHIRE was present at the surrender ceremony at Tokyo Bay. Later the box served in Korea to keep all kinds of classified papers until I found it.
And I wonder if he meant me to?