Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02
By VIC HUMPHRIES
“You Look Like a Gang of Bloody Pirates”
—WSC, HMS Renown, 1943
On 12 August 1943, as an 18year-old radar operator, I boarded HMS Renown in Scapa Flow. On the 24th we set sail across the North Atlantic into the teeth of a hurricane—my first long voyage in the Royal Navy. We had no escort, since we were a fast ship.
My cruising station was a surface warning radar set atop the mast, 95 feet in the air, reached by a steel ladder. Everything was secret and we had no idea we were going. When we got to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the captain told us we were to pick up a VIP. We were only supposed to stay 24 hours, but the Italians had just capitulated, which apparently delayed our guest a bit longer; we finally sailed on 14 September 1943, with our VIP, Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The PM was returning to Britain from the “Quadrant” conference with Roosevelt, which fixed Anglo-American strategy for the final stages of the war. He had spent over a month in Roosevelt’s company at Quebec, the White House and Hyde Park. (See Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill VI: Chapter 30.)
Mrs. Churchill was with the party; also Mary Churchill, who celebrated her 21st birthday aboard on our return voyage. During the trip, Mary and a naval officer went onto the quarterdeck, which was awash in heavy seas. Here the future Patron of the Churchill Center and Societies was nearly washed overboard. Her father tapped her on the arm and told her to use more sense!
The PM came into our recreation area as we were playing Tombola (Bingo). We all stopped and stood to attention. Observing our varied types of warm clothes, which we always wore at sea in lieu of uniforms, he smiled and said, “You look like a gang of bloody pirates.”
As we arrived at the entrance to the Clyde in a dense fog, we were instructed by the navigation officer that the ship would be under control of radar going up the river, which we traversed at 27 knots, constantly taking ranges and bearings until we dropped anchor. Radar was fairly new, and Mr. Churchill, impressed by this performance, asked to see the men responsible. The navigation officer and operators including this writer were summoned and he congratulated us on a job well done. He shook my hand. I haven’t washed it since….
Before leaving Renown Churchill addressed our ship’s company and then attended Divine Service. Sir Martin Gilbert quotes Elizabeth Layton (now TCC/ICS Honorary Member Elizabeth Nel), his secretary, who wrote: “I must say I’ve seldom felt so moved by anything, those dear sailors lined up, the Old Man singing away, the Padre (he was a marvellous man) in his robes, the few (brass) instruments forming a small band which somehow sounded very quiet and touching.”
We were destined for another Churchill voyage. On 8 November 1943, Renown sailed for Plymouth from Scapa Flow, where she again picked up the PM and his party, which now included his daughter Sarah. This time the destination was Cairo, for a plenary session with Roosevelt before the Big Three meeting in Teheran. We were accompanied by HMS London, a city class cruiser which was transporting some of the PM’s staff and Sarah’s husband, the comedian Vic Oliver, who was with ENSA, the British entertainment party which gave shows for the troops.
We sailed from Plymouth at 1830 hours on the 12th and once again this was to be a rough voyage. We were lashed by heavy seas, the quarterdeck being awash a good deal of the time. Sir Martin Gilbert notes that during the trip Captain Pim, who ran the travelling map room, tallied up the PM’s wartime travels to date: “Churchill’s total distance by sea and air was, Pim calculated, 111,000 miles. He had spent 792 hours at sea, and 339 hours in the air.”
We arrived at Gibraltar on the 15th. There it had been arranged for a York aircraft to fly Churchill to Cairo, but the aircraft failed to materialise, so the PM suggested that the journey be continued aboard Renown. We refueled at Algiers and sailed on, arriving at Malta on November 17th to a terrific welcome by the inhabitants.
Whilst in Malta, Churchill was laid up with a sore throat, so he sent London on ahead with some of his staff and we didn’t sail for Alexandria until midnight on November 19th. As we caught up to London near Crete, two German aircraft buzzed the ship, but did not attack.* We decided they were reconnaissance planes which might presage a more worrisome visit from the Luftwaffe, so Renown slipped into top gear and was quickly making 32 knots. HMS London did not have the speed to keep up with us and we signalled to them, SEE YOU IN ALEX. We arrived in Alexandria at noon on November 21st.
After the crew were allowed a run ashore (dreadful place for innocent young sailors), Renown left Alexandria on 23 November and headed for Rosyth dockyard, where the ship was prepared for the British East Indies Fleet based in Trincomolee, Ceylon. Churchill having been on board a couple of times, we were called the “taxi” by the Home Fleet.
Mr. Humphries (email@example.com) lives in Australia.
*Gilbert’s Volume VII records a buzzing incident earlier, off Pantelleria; evidently there were more than one!