Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
"Whooomphaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!" - A Son's Introduction to these stories
Our Australian childhood memories of the 1940's and 50's involved momentous adventures and travel with our parents over enormous distances. In those days there was only one way to go and that was by sea. My recollections are of many ticker tape dockside farewells, steaming hot beef tea served for "elevenses", deck quoits, sea water baths, RMS DOMINION MONARCH, SS STRATHEEDEN and the fantastic Shaw Saville Liner on her maiden voyage - TS SOUTHERN CROSS. My brother, sister and I all won a prize together as the "Ugly Sisters and Cinderella" as we crossed the Equator onboard the latter ship! We were entranced by the smell and romance of exotic sea ports - Port Said, where the "Gully Gully" conjuring men produced several live chicks from inside my shirt, Bombay with traders over the ship's side, Aden, Table Bay and many others. At Port Elizabeth, a Rick-shaw boy with huge Zulu headdress lifted himself 10 feet into the air on the poles with us children in the cab and we saw the nearby snake pit teaming with poisonous snakes - all being milked for venom by their African keepers.
So much for formal schooling - we had the whole world as our playground and my Mother and Father had moved house some 32 times by the time I was 8 or 9 years old. Sydney, Whale Beach, Melbourne, Hobart, Kew, Brighton. Name it….. and we had been there or through it. Geography on the move perhaps - Cape Town, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Gibraltar. Most of the atlas was still colored red in those days and an Aussie passport was still a British Commonwealth one. Ours were filled with many passport control stamps and all were collected from sea travel.
On a more "serious" note, we did have to undertake some school work on these 6 week voyages of transit between UK and Australia and the mornings were filled with rather starchy lessons on Algebra, English, French and the history of the "Old Country". Afternoons would be spent splashing in the upper deck pool or in the gym or lower pool and only sometimes was the weather bad enough to be confined to one's cabin. These voyages to and from Australia were pure enjoyment for us children and we saw many, many places and dozens of landfalls.
Then my Dad became Commanding Officer of one of the most beautiful ship designs ever - an Australian Tribal Class, HMAS BATAAN. Before proceeding to Korea, he took my brother and I onboard at Hobart and soon we were at full power in a storm force gale, my age was only 8 and I vowed never, ever to go to sea again after being violently seasick. (That statement was to be proved rather wrong and many years later I met the steward who had lashed me so gently and carefully into my father's bunk for safety). Later in Fremantle, I was royally entertained by the Swan Brewery to my great amazement. I only found out why when Dad told me that BATAAN had bought 100,000 bottles of Swan lager to take on her Korean deployment some 30 years before! Such is the extended brother-hood of the RAN!
In the summer of 1954, my family moved to England and education started formally with a 'crammer' at Ford in Sussex, followed by a fantastic period at Brambletye School, East Grinstead with the Ashdown Forest stretching to the horizon for more than 200 acres. For a 10 year old prep-school boy, those wild, open spaces were heaven at the week-ends and we built camps and tree-houses. Then came 5 years of hard work for 'O' and 'A' levels at Cranleigh School, near to Guildford in Surrey. However, in our summer and winter holidays, our parents took us to wonderful places - France, Greece, Dubrovnik, San Sebastian, Santander, Poitiers, Amboise, Rome, Tivoli gardens and the beautiful Azay-Le-Rideaux chateau on the Loire, to name just a few of the places that we visited. We crossed the Channel by ferry and then off down the 'N' Routes to exotic holiday destinations. Skiing in Kitzbuel and Switzerland on the Snow Sports Special from Victoria. My Father was in Iran then and by the time I was aged 15 or so my family had traveled more than 30,000 miles together, mostly by sea on the longer journeys. These trips were just brilliant.
But what followed from all these childhood voyages was influenced by the call of my past. Every single one of my forebears had been a seaman, Warwick my Father and also Leighton, my Grandfather had each spent a near life-time in the Royal Australian Navy. Leighton's father, Captain Fred Bracegirdle had made more than 650 merchant voyages in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and had been over a distance of more than 1,000,000 sea miles, a large proportion under sail. Fred was the Assistant Harbour-Master for Sydney Harbour and he continued working at sea until past his 80th birthday. I have his Nautical Almanac with all of the Pacific great circle sailing distances shown. He lived in the same house, "Kaikoura", in Balmain, overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for 42 years and the latitude and longitude of his sundial in the garden there is noted in the front of the almanac in his elegant copperplate script. His log books have not survived but could tell a fantastic tale. He was rewarded with a silver tea service for saving the lives of 100 passengers off the NSW coast in the latter part of the last century. What a seaman! His house was recently sold for $A 700,000 and I have some photos of it.
Fred's Father and Grandfather had been a maritime agent and a smack owner respectively; it is clear that they had each spent a lifetime in maritime matters. So, it was no surprise that in Spring 1945, alongside at Sydney, Garden Island, I was christened within the Ship's bell of HMAS SHROPSHIRE and before this, the Gunnery ratings of my Dad's Department had raised a full set of (dummy) naval service documents on me at 3 weeks old. Sports and Naval prowess was listed as "crying and kicking - Does not show much interest in the Service "- indeed!!! This little joke set the scene; those documents were given to me and thereafter brought tearfully in front of his SHROPSHIRE ship-mates at Dad's memorial service in exactly the same site as my own christening more than 48 years earlier. There were more than 90 including seven Admirals in the congregation that sad but memorable day.
At school in England, we had learned John Masefield's "Sea Fever" and overdosed on " The Revenge" and other such nautical poems - " At Flores in the Azores, Sir Richard Grenville lay.. and a pinnace like a fluttered bird came flying from far away. Spanish ships of war at sea - We have sighted fifty three ...!!!" Read aloud the wonderful cadences in those lines from that rich poem!
Swiss Family Robinson, Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau manuals filled my bookshelves and I had been to Iran and back by 16 years old, this time by air. My 12 foot dinghy" Gitana" ended up as matchwood on Paros in the Cyclades but I had sailed Chichester Harbour many times in her before then. For this adolescent romantic, mad keen on swimming, dinghy sailing, scuba diving and travel by sea, these 5 previous generations of mariners in a direct line left only once choice of career......................." And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by" ................... this single mindedness to join the Navy lead to a successful interview at HMS PRESIDENT in 1960, a lucky entry to BRNC Dartmouth in 1962, followed by 30 years of wandering the Southern Oceans, the Pacific and Australasia as an RN engineer officer, RNR specialist and Project Manager. Sea fever gets in your blood.
Noone, who has spent long periods and voyages at sea, remains unaffected by the poetry and moods of the Oceans. The quiet slap of waves against the hull in harbour contrast with the 200 yard long swells of the South Atlantic in rhythm. Booom………. Power and glory off Rockall in 1974 with a Force 10 - the waves were higher than the 90 foot mast of HMS BERWICK. In 1982, I thought that the 5000 tonne HMS ANTRIM would sink in the fury of a South Georgia katabatic Force 12 wind, which even stopped the radar aerials from turning. Few of us have ever been in such rough weather; she didn't sink and I came safely home.
Albatros soaring overhead, sometime for months on the wing. Herring gulls screaming in the ship's wake - fighting over scraps from the gash chute and then the beauty of deep ocean porpoises creaming and cresting the bow wave and getting a lift from the ship's stem. Sunsets of incredible beauty in the quiet of the Indian Ocean off Gan and amazing landfalls off Devonport, Portsmouth, Hong Kong, St Lucia, Trinidad and a score of other exotic places. There are some who have never experienced this romance. It sure, sure gets to you.
In a warship, there are only two places to be quiet and peaceful at sea; one place is at the masthead and I have been there only once to see our way through coral reefs off Fiji. The other is at the bullring with the noise of the ship's stem quietly swishing through the water. At night, the phosphorescence can be amazing in Southern Seas but it is a dangerous place to be if the Officer of the Watch doesn't know that you are there. But close to God and peaceful! Swimming from a warship - Hands to bathe off the ship's side in mid-Atlantic. "It's only 2000 fathoms to the bottom chaps" - that give you a funny feeling. There is usually a sentry with a loaded rifle too………….. in case of sharks!!!
Then there are the smells of a ship at sea - fresh salt air in your lungs, the spices of Hong Kong from sea and the frying of bacon sandwiches in the Morning Watch. In a fixed wing aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS there was one smell, which pervaded the whole ship sometimes - AVIATION KEROSENE. "Hands to flying stations!" It brings back vivid memories of an incredible technical machine that launched and recovered aircraft a thousand times. Unmistakable sounds of Sea Vixen aircraft, the DH110, with both engines at full chat on a straining steam catapult. That was the loudest noise in the whole world bar absolutely none!!!! One whiff of kerosene and it's back on that Flight-deck.
But there were other concerns and being an officer in the service of the Crown is not just about romance as described earlier. Unfortunately, some of us had to fight sometimes.
We were all taught the whole range of warfare - Seamanship, Torpedoes, Electronics, Radar, Communications, Explosives and dearest to our hearts was GUNNERY. It is a subject of the greatest interest and precision and involves elegant mathematics, sophisticated computing, radar, electrical transmission and synchro theory, theodolites and best of all BANGS!
Gunnery matches the cadence and rhythm of the oceans and the war cries come from the ages old drill book, perhaps as follows:-
"4.5's AIRCRAFT!!!!!!!! Bearing Red 50 degrees, Range 60 miles". Down in the 4.5 Inch Gunnery battery transmitting station, feverish activity takes place as the practice sleeve target is acquired in the gunnery radar and as the small echo is caught in the bearing, elevation and range gates of the various displays.
"DIRECTOR RADAR!!!!!!" and then the gun turret swings to follow the director, now tracking the target in auto-follow. The predictor (computer) works out the ballistics and hence the aim-off so that the shells will land on target - to be triggered by the doppler activated fuze in the shell's nose. The gun turret is now following the tracking radar with aim-off, known as" deflections" from the predictor. As the ship rolls, so the gun elevates and trains to follow a fixed point in space - the intercept point derived from the mathematics.
"4.5's SALVOES" is the cry from the Gunnery Director and both of the gun's rammers are heard to go forward with a loud clang. From now on the breeches are loaded with cordite cartridge case and deadly fuzed high explosive shell. Guns are highly dangerous in this state and are NEVER pointed, except in anger or when safe to do so. The firing circuit safety switches can now be made.
As soon as maximum effective range is reached for an inbound practice sleeve target "4.5s ENGAGE!!!!" cries the Gunnery Officer into his microphone, after gaining permission from the Captain.
"SHOOT!!!" says the Transmitting Station (TS) Officer quietly, then ........
The crack of a large calibre gun is unmistakable as the TS Range-taker presses the firing push and the guns fire in sequence. Right gun, recoil, Left Gun, recoil, again and again until...............
"CHECK CHECK CHECK!!!!!!!!!" and the firing gong calls for cease fire. And the whole ventilation system of the ship is filled with the acrid smell of cordite - unmistakable, stinging the back of the nose and throat. Cordite and Gunnery, Cordite Cordite, the smell of war.
My generation were only to experience real gunnery in anger in a few instances. These stories are about REAL gunners, trained at HMS EXCELLENT and the Australian counterpart, HMAS CERBERUS ( the 3 headed dog). Sometimes they needed three-headed luck as well!
Only on one occasion is all of this careful peacetime gunnery drill dispensed with, namely the surprise attack from a low flying enemy aircraft called a "bogey" or perhaps a kamikaze.....................
ALARM AIRCRAFT !!!!!!!! - GREEN FIVE ZERO ,
ANGLE OF SIGHT 10, RANGE 6 MILES !!!!!!!
At the first or second degree of readiness, this order can be given by anyone onboard and this is the greatest emergency for any warship bar "Torpedo, Torpedo" or "Hands to Collision Stations". The gunnery order is the executive order to bring all guns to bear on the target and to open fire without any further permission on the "bogey" before he drops his bombs on you. "Hell's Bells", the adrenaline rushes at this order and it makes your hair stand on end and yet my Dad and his gunnery teams were doing this for more than 4 years solid, sometimes day after day. Off Crete and Malta for endless hours HMAS PERTH fought off JUNKERS, STUKAS and ME 109s with every gun they could bring to bear. In Lingayen Gulf, SHROPSHIRE did this for weeks on end. Gunnery, Gunnery, Gunnery and more Gunnery and the acrid smell of Cordite, Cordite, Cordite. It got everywhere.
This might have been a typical day………………………… "Hands to Action Stations…….. Hands to Action Stations" BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR …………goes the Action alarm bell.
"Alarm Aircraft, Captain to the Bridge!!!!!!!" "OK Pilot" yells the Captain, up from his cuddy. " I have the ship - Revolutions 240, Port 35! Take cover, take cover, …. Yeoman, Send Air Raid Warning red on the TBS!" (Talk Between Ships).
("My God whispers the Midshipman of the Watch, white with fear - "I hope the Old Man knows what he is doing because at 28 knots this will give us 35 degrees of roll. Why the heck is he facing towards the stern looking up? - Ahhaaa………… so he's bomb dodging!!!!!!!!")
Down in the Engine Room, the Artificers covered in sweat, strain at opening the throttles as the twin screws accelerate to maximum revolutions. In response to the Captain's order, the helmsman puts on an impossible amount of wheel and so the cruiser shudders violently and the deck is heaving like a bucking bronco. Steam races into the turbines and the rudder angle at this excessive speed is now causing an acute roll. Damage control parties are doing their best to hang on and any few unsecured pots in the galley go for a "Burton" with a huge crash. Guns follow their fire control directors. Queensland voices whisper "Come on yer beggar!" as they wait for effective range to close. "Stuka!" yells the Yeoman.
"Starboard 30" orders the Skipper and the ship rolls the other way in an acute roll as she twists out of the way out of the attack. White water creams at the stern and a huge fishtail wake is seen. 800 hearts are racing as one of Goering's aircraft closes to an engagement with death. Deadly, deadly aimers are waiting, some more frightened than others. The gentle Padre, bravest of the brave hangs on for dear life with rosary to hand.
The attacking aircraft is now committed to a steep bombing dive and may never come out of it because the four inch high angle gunnery battery opens up first in rhythm - WHOOOMFAAAAAAA, CRACK CRACK CRACK.
Close range guns with sweating gunners in their tin hats and anti-flash straining over open spider sights are waiting, then open up - POMPOMPOMPOMPOM with hundreds of cartridge cases shuddering on the sloping decks. Tracer and flack are filling the near horizon. The Captain and his Bridge Team successfully dodges a stick of bombs that falls 100 feet to port causing a huge underwater explosion and water wall; the Stuka whines overhead trailing smoke. Wow - no time to be frightened now. "Check, Check, Check! All Quarters report Ammunition Expended." And so it went on for hours and hours.
In the Med. in 1942, HMS AJAX and HMAS PERTH were known as the "Hair trigger Twins" - at defence or action stations they would fire at anything that moved into their sector, even if friendly. Tough if it was an RAF plane because the pilot should have invoked the safe airborne joining routine! They were tested to the limit during the evacuations from Crete……. Cunningham's men. All of the ship's companies heard what he said in a signal during the heavy losses that day " Three years to build a ship and 300 to re-build a Naval Tradition". The evacuation of the Army had to go on in spite of the cost to the RN and RAN.
All of the action teams who lived onboard PERTH and SHROPSHIRE, as described in these stories slept for most of the war at sea in their Action Working Dress and their Anti-Flash hoods and gloves. All of them became tremendous friends, welded together by the comradeship of one of the tautest fighting machines ever invented - the wartime RAN Cruiser. As their RN and RAF counterparts, they were the toughest of the tough and the bravest of the brave. In the Pacific HMAS SHROPSHIRE was bounced by a kamikaze but with a pompom gun, Leading Seaman Roy Cazaly DSM shot the wings off the attacking aircraft so that the engine landed on one side of SHROPSHIRE and the bombs on the other - "Phew!!!!!" said the Ships Company and right they were. His widow had more than 150 letters when Roy died he had many staunch friends - Admirals to Ordinary Seaman of course. In Melbourne, every family knows his name - just try shouting "Up Cazaly" there and see what happens"
My Father had told me a little of his adventures but seldom had he a chance to publish the accounts of immensely brave exploits that he had undertaken. He didn't readily tell the story of how he was mugged in Kingston, Jamica, dropped over the harbour wall and left for dead. All of his ilk were very modest men and they neglected to say that their hearts had nearly stopped on certain occasions in air attacks, explosions or raids in Pacific, the Med or North Korean waters. For our Commonwealth, the Ship's Companies earned our respect hundreds of times over without complaint.
Then my whole world fell in when Warwick died in 1992 without time and place to tell me about all of the wonderful experiences of his life. Some of the fighting yes but not about the huge number of friends as well. I sat at his desk for more than 8 hours on the night that he died and went through his papers. In his archives were wonderful things, letters from Princes, signals from Prime Ministers, reports of battles and numerous correspondence from his many friends, correspondents and life-time comrades. Most of these papers are in the hands of the RAN Naval archives now. Later, by accident, I found some priceless papers too.
And these were some of his own stories. So, I decided to put them together into chronological order and edit them in a way that might make them coherent. A few corrections were necessary and they have been re-named appropriately but they are much as they were from the faded typescript with his careful hand written corrections. There are some other extracts which fill in the gaps and all of these these have the consent of the Publishers.
Warwick's stories cover a period of 30 years from Cadet to Commander in peace and war (1925-1955). They are all true stories and in some instances, Warwick was the wearer of the coats mentioned in question. In others, it was a story involving a close friend or shipmate and sometimes with a coat or suit as the theme.
Later, Chief Petty Officer Arthur Cooper RAN, Dad's Chief Gunner's Mate helped me with more stories and experiences. He too has been a long-time friend and correspondent and he has typed letters to me of impeccable quality at a distinguished age of 88. As was my Father, Arthur was a true gentleman, fearless and honest to the hilt and true as steel. His stories of Tobruk will make your hair stand on end. More than a year ago, he must have had a premonition because he sent me a complete blow-by-blow account of Leyte and Lingayen Gulf actions in addition to the other stories herein. Now came my tears because after several years of correspondence, I wrote to him at Christmas 1998 but got no reply - this was unusual. After several more enquiries over this Spring, I received a sad letter from his widow to say that he had died in Autumn 1998 without my knowledge. He had had three hip replacements and was a few months short of his 90th birthday - I miss his steady judgment and kindly manner. God Bless you Arthur!!!
Just some of their brave ships too - their names ring out - WARRAMUNGA, AUSTRALIA, CANBERRA, ARUNTA, PERTH, SHROPSHIRE, BATAAN, HMS AJAX, HMS JUNO, VOYAGER, VENDETTA AND USS HOUSTON - their battle honours would fill a stadium and some now rest peacefully at the bottom of the Sunda Strait. JUNO was blown apart.
I saw only some of their gunnery training grounds at Whale Island and HMAS CERBERUS and experienced just a little of what they had gone through. As I went back to Australia in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Surigao Straits, I was proud to escort Mrs Godfrey Nichols and many of these brave men shook my hand warmly. Most welcomed me by name but a few said "Good on yer, Warwick!" as they recognized distinctive family features!!! (And privately inside I thought but I'm his second son and he's not here in body to thank them!!!). It was he that taught them all about "Tiger Country" as Dad briefed the gunnery teams so carefully prior to the battles in Leyte and Lingayen Gulfs.
Even though, Warwick and Arthur's personal experiences are to the fore in this anthology, it is to the true gentlemen and ship's companies and gunners of the Second World War and also in Korea that these stories are In heaven, there are no longer Admirals and Ordinary Seamen just brave men and their loving families. There are a hundred more names that I could tell you about and luckily some remain alive more than 54 years later - Crutchley, Feltham, Oldham, Birrell, Leach, Nichols, Griffiths, Buchanan, Ray Parkin, Alliston, Wellard, Nutty Ferris, Cheadle, Perrin, Roche, Hec Waller, Nunn, Date, Shepherd, Patching, Cazaly, Cook, Wakeham, Collins …………. It would take too long to mention their bravery and a thousand pages would only set the scene for their stories. Some of them appear herein.dedicated with affection, these are Dad's and Arthur's own salute to you all and to your brave families -
"GENTLEMEN CORDITE" - THE FIGHTING MEN OF THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY.
NICOLAS LEIGHTON BRACEGIRDLE, BATH, UK , JUNE 1999.