At the outbreak of war in 1939 he would have been 28 years old, working as a plumber for the building company, Bakers, in Handsworth, Birmingham.
He was not immediately enlisted, probably because of the need for skilled workers during the blitz. He worked in Coventry after the devastating air raids there. He did join the Home Guard and was often on duty guarding Hamstead Colliery near Birmingham.
He eventually received his call up papers probably in late 1942 and chose to join the navy. I once asked him “Why the navy”. His answer was “In the navy you always know where your bed is” He did his basic training at HMS Royal Arthur which I believe was followed by Gunnery training at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. His class of about 50 consisted of men like himself in their early 30s who had been held back for one reason or another, or young lads of 18 who had just come of age.
After training he was posted to The Royal Naval Patrol Service, nicknamed Harry Tate’s Navy, Harry Tate being a popular comedian of the time. He reported to the Patrol Service base at Lowestoft and learned he was on notice for an overseas posting. He received a one week leave and reported to Liverpool for embarkation not knowing his eventual destination. He boarded HMS Whaddon, a Hunt class Destroyer with a number of others for passage. The Whaddon formed part of the escort for a convoy heading for the Cape and was very crowded with many passengers. On reaching southern Spain the Whaddon left the convoy and made a dash into Gibralter to drop off its passengers before re-joining the convoy.
On reaching Gibraltar he found he had a while to wait around before the ship he was posted to returned, so they gave him the job of P.O.s mess man. At this time his brother in law, my uncle Elijah (Ernie) Clark was serving on the “Rock” with the Royal Artillery, so he decided to look him up. Ernie complained to Don about the food being served to the Gunners. “Not very good and not enough of it”. A lot of the Petty Officers would often go out drinking and leave their meal uneaten. So Ernie would slip round the back of the P.O.s mess at night and Don would feed him up on Steak and Kidney Pies.
After a week or two in Gib. the ship he was to join arrived. It was the H.M.T. Man o’War, she was a coal burning steam trawler. Before the war she was owned by a fishing company possibly from Fleetwood. The company had a tradition of naming its trawlers after famous racehorses. Man o’War was a famous American racehorse.
The Man o’Wars main armament was a 4 inch gun on the whaleback, she had a number of machine guns and a rack of depth charges at the stern. The forward fish hold had been converted into the seamen’s mess. Don joined the 4 inch gun crew as the sightsetter. As I understand it this involved adjusting the sights to compensate for the roll of the ship. The gun layer, who was in charge of the gun, aimed then fired.
At this time the Man o’War was active escorting convoys from Gib. along the North African coast into Algiers and Bone. She came into action against enemy aircraft on one of these runs. All guns opened fire including the 4 inch even though the maximum elevation was only about 17 degrees probably posing more of a threat to the convoy than the enemy.
The Americans were always well provisioned and a vast amount of supplies lay in Algiers dockyard. A couple of hundred cigarettes placed in the right hands found the Man o’Wars crew eating the finest American food.
On one of his ships visits to Algiers, Don attended a church service in St. Georges Church which was in the dockyard. I think it was a case of going on church parade or being found some work to do. The date was Whitsunday 13th. June 1943 and it must have been quite an occasion as Don and his mates found themselves rubbing shoulders with top brass and even King George VI was there. For security reasons it had been kept hush hush.
The Man o’War was also involved in patrolling the straits of Gibraltar. This was to deter U-boats from entering the Mediterranean and also to prevent frogmen attacking targets in Gibraltar harbour. The main channel was patrolled by Destroyers, the inshore patrol was conducted be Motor Launches and between these two came the Trawlers. The Destroyers and Trawlers would occasionally drop a random depth charge as a deterrent. During one of these patrols in the middle of the night the skipper decided to drop a charge. He ordered “full steam ahead and drop one charge”. Being the middle of the night she didn’t have a full head of steam and continued to crawl along at her original speed. The depth charge exploded lifting the stern out of the water. Don, who was on watch at the time,was knocked off his feet. He maintained that his knees were never the same again!! The incident caused damage to the steering gear. This must have been some form of power steering because when the wheel was turned to put the rudder over a few degrees it just kept going. Putting the opposite correction on the wheel had the same effect and it was impossible to steer a straight course.
On returning to Gib. an Engine Room Artificer came aboard to look at the problem. He stripped it all down, laying the parts out in the order that he had removed them. The ERA then went for his dinner. Along came one of Don’s shipmates, looked at all these bits and pieces neatly laid out on the deck, picked up a small spring and flipped it over the side. The ERA returned from his dinner to re-assemble the gear. The fault persisted.
The Man o’War was ordered to return to England for a refit. On the way home she formed part of an escort for a number of Tank Landing Craft which had probably been used in the Sicilian and Italian landings. On their way north this small convoy was shadowed by German Condor aircraft but always keeping just out of range.
Crossing the Bay of Biscay they ran into a very bad storm and one of the TLCs was having engine trouble. The Man o’War was ordered to hold back and try to shepherd the craft home. They managed to get a tow line aboard but by now she was getting swamped and in danger of sinking. The Man o’War went along side to take off the stricken crew. This proved to be very difficult and dangerous with her steering problems and storm conditions. The two vessels were crashing together as the crew of the TLC jumped across. But the rescue was completed without loss of life. The TLC was abandoned and must have sunk.
During this storm Don was taking a stint on the wheel, battling to keep the ship on course. With him was the bosun, one of the few professional seamen on board. Seeing Don struggling, the bosun took over the wheel. After a while the skipper shouted to the wheelhouse “Winter, you’re hopeless, put the bosun on the wheel” The bosun shouted back “I’ve been on the wheel for the last half hour sir”
The Man o’War eventually made it back to the UK where she was laid up for repair and all the crew paid off. That was the last that Don saw of her.
After a spot of leave he had to report back to Lowestoft, traveling through the night to get there early in the morning. On reaching “the sparrows nest” he was told to report aboard HMY Brinmaric in Portsmouth, given a travel warrant and sent on his way. He reached Portsmouth in the early afternoon and reported in. Nobody seemed to know the whereabouts of the Brinmaric so the officer in charge told him “look, Portsmouth is playing at home today, go and watch the match and come back in a couple of hours. During the war a lot of top professional footballers had been conscripted into the services where they were allowed to play for the local team. Places like Aldershot and Portsmouth must have had some of the best teams in the country. After returning from the match Don was told that the Brinmaric was in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. He caught the ferry to Ryde, then inland by rail to Newport then back to the coast at Cowes where he was told “no. she’s not here”. It must have been quite late in the day so the PO suggested he draw a mattress and blanket and bed down for the night on the mess room floor. He had been traveling for over 24 hours and must have been exhausted. In the morning the PO informed Don that the Brinmaric was moored off Gosport which meant retracing his steps to the mainland, eventually reporting aboard 24 hours overdue. The skipper accepted his explanation for his absence but in years to come “the brass” were repeatedly asking him to account for the missing 24 hours. When exactly he joined the Brinmaric I am not sure but I would estimate that it was in the early months of 1944. He was certainly aboard at the time of the Normandy Landings.
Donald joined the Brinmaric as a seaman gunner and was replacing a leading seaman who was the ships gunner. The leading seaman was supposed to leave the ship to do a gunlayers course but the skipper persuaded his superiors and managed to keep both the leading seaman and Don. The Brinmaric's only armament was an Oerliken gun on the foredeck. This was a dual purpose machine gun for surface or anti-aircraft roles. It fired a 20mm cannon (exploding) shell. Don’s task was to service and fire the Oerlikon and also maintain the small armoury of pistols, rifles and even cutlasses.
HMY Brinmaric was a wooden hulled diesel powered yacht. When serving in the Patrol Service as a minesweeper she was often used for entertaining the “brass” where drinks and mock salmon sandwiches (tinned sardines, mashed with a dash of vinegar) were served. She earned the nickname ‘The Gin Palace’ among the crew.
The Brinmaric had been equipped with ASDIC to detect underwater objects which at the time must have been state of the art technology. She was not involved in the Normandy landings, her principal role was to sweep the channel ports to clear the mines after they had been liberated. She was the first allied ship to enter Le Havre, along with her sister ship the Esmerelda, after its liberation. She was also involved in operation PLUTO, which was a fuel pipeline laid between the UK and France.
During this period they were crossing the channel quite frequently and while in France they learned of certain shortages- one of them being bicycle tyres. On returning to the UK the crew stocked up on tyres knowing they would make a good profit when sold in France.
In the navy every man was entitled to a daily rum ration which was usually served at lunch time. My father enjoyed a pint of beer but was never a spirits drinker so he gave up his rum ration and registered as ‘temperance’. For this he received 3 pence a day extra on his pay. In the regular navy the rum was watered down to become grog but on the Brinmaric they didn’t bother and served the spirit neat. Some of the crew must have been bottling their ration which was strictly illegal. The first lieutenant got suspicious and issued a warning of a locker inspection in the morning and if any spirits were found there would be trouble. At this time my uncle ‘Bill’ Clark was in Portsmouth serving with the Royal Marines and had been notified of overseas posting that night. He was invited aboard to meet up with Don, his brother in law. The ‘illegal’ rum flowed freely and in the evening Bill had to be helped ashore and across Portsmouth to be reunited with his fellow marines. The next day, the First Lieutenant never bothered with the locker inspection. On another occasion Portsmouth came under a night time air raid and as usual the ships in the harbour put up anti aircraft fire. This must have resulted in some success and the ‘brass’ decided to issue a few medals. All the names of the ships were put into a hat and two or three were pulled out. One of the lucky names was a small ship who’s crew had been ashore on the night of the raid. The skipper received the DSO and the gunner the DSM both for spending a night on the town.
Another story that Don related to me was that the Brinmaric swept up a new type of German contact mine. The usual procedure to deal with contact mines when they had been swept to the surface was to sink them with rifle fire rather than try to detonate them. But on this occasion, being a new type it was decided to salvage it for examination by HMS Vernon. They managed to get a line on it in order to tow it inshore and onto the beach. A message that this new type of mine was being salvaged found its way to Vernon. During the towing operation the crew spotted a twin engined aircraft flying low and straight towards them. At this stage of the war the standing order was to regard any aircraft overflying allied shipping as hostile. (This was later rescinded as too many of our aircraft wire being shot up with friendly fire). As the approaching aircraft got well within range the skipper ordered Don to open fire. Don squeezed the trigger and –nothing happened as the safety catch was still on. Just then the aircraft banks to one side and the RAF markings could now be clearly seen under the wings. The aircraft was an Avro Anson with a message from Vernon. The message, flashed by Aldis lamp, was that Vernon had already dismantled this type of mine and gave instructions on how to disarm it. One of the crew was to press a plunger on top of the mine to make it safe and then beach it for Vernon to take over. The skipper asked for volunteers to row out and press this plunger. Not surprisingly nobody accepted the challenge. The live mine was eventually beached and a guard mounted from a safe distance. The officer from Vernon arrived and asked “have you made it safe?” “ No- haven’t touched it sir” was the reply. The officer marches up to the mine muttering “what are you buggers playing at” and hits the plunger while the crew are diving for cover in the sand dunes!!
Don was asked what he thought of the American seamen he met. He thought that they didn’t show the mines enough respect. On one occasion while the Brinmaric was sounding one of the French ports for mines, an American transport vessel came steaming in. She had been warned not to enter because there were mines around. A mine was triggered, and blew a hole in the bottom of the vessel – she settled down in the shallow water.
On another occasion Don witnessed a US Destroyer open fire on a surfaced contact mine with an Oerliken using explosive shells. There was a big bang and a lot of broken glass and blast damage.
Donald served with the Brinmaric into 1946 and always had a good word for the skipper. On at least one occasion Don was sent for to take a gun layers course. This would have meant a promotion but also a probable Far East posting. Don said he was happy as he was and preferred to remain on the Brinmaric. “Leave it to me” said the skipper, “I’ll see what I can do”. Don remained aboard until demobilization.
In February 1946 he was transferred to HMS Vernon to go through the process of demobilization. On the eve of his demob he was ordered by the PO to draw a rifle and stand guard. “I’m being demobbed at 6 in the morning” he argued. “Hard luck mate, you are the only one I’ve got available” came the reply. So his last night in the service was spent guarding the main gate of HMS Vernon.
The only shipmate that I can remember him mentioning by name was Archie Bonthram who hailed from Measham in Liecestershire. Whether Archie served on the Man o’War or Brinmaric, I don’t know.
Donald was awarded the Victory Medal, the France Germany, Atlantic, African and Italian Star campaign medals. He never bothered much with medals, I still have them in the cardboard box they were delivered in.
On returning to civilian life he again worked for Bakers but soon moved on. He got a job as a pipefitter at Albright and Wilsons, a large chemical firm in Oldbury to the west of Birmingham. I can remember going with him in the 1950s on rail excursions to Portsmouth for Navy Day. On these occasions you could tour the dockyard and go on board a number of ships. Still being the glorious age of steam on the railways this was a great adventure for a young lad.
Donald worked for Albrights (now Rhodia) for 27 years until his retirement. He kept active and for a time worked casually, delivering motor cars around the country. He was a lifelong Aston Villa supporter and also enjoyed a day out watching the horseracing.
He passed away in 2003 at the age of 92.
Well, that’s about it. I’ve tried to relate these tales as accurately as I can remember my father telling them to me. I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes in the telling, after all this has been only a second hand account. If there are any old “sparrows” out there who can correct any mistake in this story I would welcome it. But, like my father, I suppose they’ve mostly passed on now.
The Patrol Service was disbanded after the war and is all but forgotten today. But the men who served in the Royal Naval Patrol Service did something quite unique. They all went to war in vessels that were not designed or made for warfare, and should be held in highest regard by the service and their country.