February 8, 2015

Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014

Page 10

By Vic Humphries

You look like a gang of bloody pirates.” —WSC

I send my condolences to the family of Lady Soames, the vivacious passenger I so well remember aboard HMS Renown on a transatlantic adventure long ago. I am proud to say that we scanned the Atlantic 24/7 whilst the family slept safely in their cabins.

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On 12 August 1943, as an 18-year-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 she was a fast ship, which would easily have outdistanced any accompanying cruisers.

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 where we were going. We finally arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the captain told us we were to pick up a VIP. We were only supposed to stay twenty-four hours, but the Italians had just capitulated, which apparently delayed our guest a bit longer. We finally sailed on 14 September 1943, carrying our VIP, the Prime Minister, along with his wife and daughter.

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 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill VI, Chapter 30.)

The vivacious Miss Churchill, a treat to have aboard, celebrated her 21st birthday with a large cake. More precarious and worrying was when she and a naval officer went onto the quarterdeck, awash in heavy seas. Here the future Patron of The Churchill Centre was nearly swept overboard. Her father tapped her on the arm and told her to use more sense!

The Prime Minister 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, the ship was under radar control 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, Mr. Churchill addressed our ship’s company and then attended Divine Service. Sir Martin Gilbert quotes his then-secretary, Elizabeth Layton (later TCC/ICS Honorary Member Elizabeth Nel), 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 in his robes (he was a marvellous man), the few (brass) instruments forming a small band which somehow sounded very quiet and touching.”

Mr. Humphries, RN (ret.), lives in Hamilton Hill, Western Australia. This article is excerpted and updated from his recollections of two Renown voyages carrying the Prime Minister, published in Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02.

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