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The Story Of John Hornby 1901-1974

Author - John Haydn Barker Hornby, 2001. Edited and Published 2003 Copyright © Hubmaker
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without the prior consent of the publisher.

Chapter 7 - Battleship Man Once More!

The "Queen Elizabeth"
On the 13th May 1936 my father was appointed as Chief Petty Officer, and served aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth until 7 July 1937. She was a 31,000 ton battleship, oil-fired, and the nameship of the "Queen Elizabeth" class. She was armed with 8 huge 15" guns. During his service aboard she was stationed partly at Alexandria (at the Northern end of the River Nile) where she was on standby in case intervention was required during the Italo Ethiopian crisis of 1936 (when Britain led the league of Nations effort to deter Mussolini's aggression against Abysinnia). The ship took part in the Coronation Review at Spithead off Portsmouth in 1937, and she underwent major modifications in that year.

HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Queen Elizabeth, July 1936. Chief Petty Officers' Crew
Winners, Mediteranean Fleet Regatta. John Hornby middle left.

Queen Elizabeth was involved with the Spanish Civil War of 1937/8 in which we played a "neutral" part, but Britain was concerned to evacuate British and American subjects, mainly from Barcelona and Cartagena. British ships were also used to protect the passage of British merchant vessels entering and leaving Spanish ports, and in the evacuation of children in danger, mainly direct to Southampton from Bilbao. Much of this was shrouded in mystery at the time but one book carries the following passage: "For all such reasons humanitarian, prestige, deterrence the Royal Navy did indeed become involved in the Spanish Civil War, paradoxically in the cause of non-intervention! Operations involved the use of several capital ships, including the battleship "Resolution" and "Royal Oak" and the battle cruiser "Hood", and many cruisers and destroyers"

I know of 28 named vessels mentioned in another book. I found a midshipman's log in the R.N. library at Portsmouth, which covers the same period as my father's service. It is clear from this that she spent most of her time in the Mediterranean, and then to various Spanish ports because of the Spanish Civil War, and that log shows that landing parties were sent ashore from the ship to escort British citizens to safety.

My father told harrowing stories of his own time ashore, presumably with one of more of the landing parties, of nuns crucified upside down in shop windows and terrible destruction and human suffering. I don't think he would make up such things.

The Spanish Civil War showed many things: the way the Navy was stretched to capacity: and in particular, the devastating effect of bombing, when Hitler used unopposed Stuka dive bombers to level the town of Guernica. It certainly alerted England and France to the rise of the new Germany and the power of an air force.
In July 1936, at the first Battle Squadron regatta in Alexandria my father's gig's crew were overall winners. I have a silver oar which was presented to him as his Trophy, and appropriate photograph.

It was compelling, (and moving) to read the midshipman's log on these races, and I quote: "The Pt race was a pleasant surprise, QE (Queen Elizabeth) winning the seamen's' gigs quite easily. The seamens' whaler won their races by nearly 6 lengths and we continued to win until the daymen's gig came in second owing to one member of the crew getting a touch of cramp. The next surprise was the C.P.O.'s gigs (my father's) which won in 11m 01 seconds, leading all the way. We finished the day with 8 firsts out of 12 races." It goes on to say that the winning crews went on board H.M.S. Valiant for the prizegiving, and "The cock (the prized trophy shown the photograph) was hoisted at the main derrick, and after the last race was floodlit after dark".

Queen Elizabeth was sunk during the Second World War by Italian frogmen in Alexandria Harbour on 10th December 1942.

The "Queen Elizabeth" class of ship (there were about six) is regarded by naval historians as one of the most successful groups of warships ever built, and of very good value for money.

In spite of his enjoyable times in the Navy, my father seriously considered leaving in the 1930s to take up poultry farming. However, this was the time of the great depression in England, and with so much poverty and so may people out of work, he decided against it. Mother often said that she was the envy of the village at that time, collecting my fathers pay weekly from the village Post Office, when so many others were hard up and had no regular money at all.

On 17th January 1939 my father joined HMS Repulse, generally looked upon as the most beautiful of all Navy Ships. She was a battle cruiser of 32,000 tons. He served aboard her until 30th July 1941 - 2 1/2 years.

The most interesting story of his time on the Repulse is found among his artefacts to be written down three times; there are three different versions of the same story. The hand written one is as follows:

"The recent World War, in November 1940 whilst serving in HMS Repulse and steaming north off the South West coast of Iceland, calm sea, with a heavy swell on the broadside of the ship. Some time during the night, in heavy weather, a bad leak had been reported, through a hatch on the forecastle of the ship. I was informed as the Chief of the ship responsible for this sort of thing, and told to attend to it, when the weather moderated. Daylight came, and the weather seemed suitable for the work, except for the heavy ground swell coming from the port side. Owing to the presence of hostile submarines, our ship had to zig zag. Collecting 3 volunteer sailors. One named Ordinary Seaman Long. Going to do the job. A huge sea coming over, telling the men to "hold on". Being washed to the side of the ship. A second wave bigger than the previous one washing all over the side except me. Realising the men had oilskins and sea boots on, and possibly no life belts. Jumping over the side to rescue first taking off my boots & oilskins and inflating my life belt.

Returning to the ship, and having to report. Being dressed down by the Captain for leaving the ship without permission. Eventually being Mentioned in Dispatches.

To continue with my title. "A Small World". In 1941, home on leave. Trip to Manchester. Crowded train. Wife and I got into a compartment, with 2 ladies and a little girl. Being in naval uniform, attracted little girls' attention. My wife then spoke to the ladies. One of them saying the little girls' father had been a sailor, but was drowned at sea. I then asked what ship was he in?. She said His Majesty's Ship "Repulse". By this time I was feeling rather strange, as I knew two men only of my ship were drowned during the recent years. So I asked for his name, and she said (Long (Ordinary Seaman)). I could have fainted to think of all the people on that crowded railway we had to choose a compartment in which sat a little girl, whose father had met his death, through obeying an order from me".

A typewritten version of the story seems to be a revised version of another. There is a crucial difference - in one he went over the side to help in the rescue, in the other, not so and yet, why would be receive a "mention in dispatches" a considerable honour, if all he did was shelter behind a breakwater? I have a framed certificate of this award. My research has failed to validate either version of the incident.

"Repulse" joined the Home Fleet in March 1939, enforcing the blockade of the French and German Ports and searching for German raiders until she was despatched to America and the West Indies Command in October 1939 to cover Halifax - UK supply convoys until December 1940. (Her Captain was the very well liked William Tennant known to the crew as "Dunkirk Joe" because he had worked wonders getting soldiers home off the beaches of Dunkirk, earlier in the war). She was then recalled to the Home Fleet and took part in sweeps in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and in the Northern North Sea, for returning German blockade running merchant ships searching again for German surface raiders, and in particular the liner Bremen, also including "Scharnhorst". "Gneisenau", "Admiral Scheer", "Admiral Hipper" and "Bismarck", but did not get into any action.

She also covered a raid against Jan Mayen Island and played a part in the Norwegian campaign. That campaign, briefly, was as follows:
On the 9th April 1940 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. Denmark fell within a day and within 48 hours all the principal seaports and all the airfields in Norway were in German hands. Because of German air superiority and other commitments, the Southern and Central areas of Norway were eventually abandoned by Britain, but in the North, Narvik was subsequently re-taken. The Navy's role was mainly carrying troops and stores out and home again. Churchill described it as a "ramshackle" campaign.

"Repulse", with 3 other large vessels, provided "big ship" cover. On the 8th of April 1940 the "Repulse" was dispatched to assist the destroyer "Glowworm" in her battle with German ships and the Glowworm story is one of the best wartime greats. This small destroyer was hopelessly outgunned by the German battleship "Hipper" and was badly damaged. Her Captain, Gerard Roope, decided there was only one thing to stop the Hipper he must ram her. This he did, by clever use of a smokescreen: and the "Hipper" was badly damaged and out of action for a long time. Glowworm broke apart and sank with heavy loss of life. Her Captain was saved, he climbed up the scrambling net of the rescuing ship, got to the top, and fell back into the sea, exhausted, before he could be helped, and was drowned. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. "Repulse" did not get to the scene in time to dispatch "Hipper " The German had limped away into the gloom and was lost.

HMS Repulse 1940
HMS Repulse, August 1940. Admiral Sir Charles Forbes and Captain William Tennant behind him. John Hornby far left.

I will include in this commentary part of a Naval message from the archives. Its phrasing is interesting. "Gung Ho" perhaps, or just informal?

To: Ship's Company From: Captain
(A) Our Destroyers part company tonight and return to Gibraltar.
(B) We meet the Western Approaches screen of Destroyers at 0800 Wednesday 9th.
(C) We are due at the Clyde A.M. Friday 11th. (Good Friday).
(D) It is thought that the German Battlecruisers finding things too hot for them in Brest may come out tonight.
We may get a chance to have a go at them, if this happens and Repulse can do her normal good shooting and land a few fifteen inch in them, I think they well remember how far away the German Dockyards are from them and shove off.
6/4/41 W. Tennant. Captain

Fortunately my father left the ship on 30th July 1941, for on the 1st August - 2 days after - she left the area for other work, never to return. Her end came when she was sent, as part of a special striking force, along with HMS "Prince of Wales" to the South West Pacific, in a desperate attempt to deter rising Japanese aggression.

The two ships were caught by Japanese torpedo bombers off the North East coast of Malaya on the 10 December 1941, and sunk in shallow water. Repulse was hit by at least 5 torpedoes. Their fate again is well documented in Naval literature; and has been pored over and retold by historians time and time again.

My father always said that "Repulse" was his most favoured ship of all. There is a letter from Captain William Tennant, who survived the sinking, to my father, in the artifacts. Another interesting story about "Repulse" is set out by my father in a letter to the magazine "Sea Cadet" dated March 1965, describing a daylight attack on the ship, while in dry dock on 16 October 1939, in what was believed to be the first air raid of the war. I quote the following relevant extracts:

"At the time of the attack I was with H.M.S. Repulse in dry dock in Rosyth. The ship was being overhauled after some months at sea. The night before the air attack we had left Scapa Flow, passing H.M.S. Royal Oak at anchor near the boom defence, subsequently reaching the Firth of Forth and dock at Rosyth an uneventful trip until after we had docked. The German aircraft flew over the Forth Bridge and narrowly missed it with their bombs. They then flew over the water, machine gunned the ships arriving in the Firth of Forth and then those in dry dock. H.M.S. Repulse opened fire with anti aircraft guns. The gunlayer of one 3 inch A.A. gun on the port side was Leading Seaman Hooper, who claimed to have shot down one German machine. I saw this happen and congratulated Hooper on a good shot as he hit the aircraft as it was passing over the ship. The pilot was rescued from the water but died soon afterwards. He was taken to the mortuary for identification and was later buried in the Naval Cemetery in Rosyth.

In the meantime, several destroyers entered the basin in Rosyth. Amongst them was. H.M.S. Mohawk which made fast astern of H.M.S. Repulse. I was, at that time, Chief Bos'n's Mate of H.M.S. Repulse, so I ordered a party of ratings to proceed to Mohawk with stretchers and sick berth staff, to see if we could render assistance as some of the Mohawk's crew had been badly knocked about by German fire. The upper deck was a shambles.

Men had been killed and some badly wounded, but we did what we could and helped to clear up the mess."

At that time, my wife was staying with friends in Alloa and, hearing that the Repulse was in dock, she hastened to the dockyard to see me and whilst she was at the dockyard gates she could see that something was going on. When I found out that my wife was there, I hurried to the dockyard gates and implored her to get to safety. The alarm had been sounded by then, and I arrived back at the ship just as "Action Stations" sounded and was able to witness all that happened.

The Captain of H.M.S. Repulse was Captain Spooner, R.N., and the commander was Commander Bateson, R.N."

The aircraft involved were actually brand new untried German Junkers 88s; two of which were shot down (one book, however, claims that the aircraft were shot down by spitfires). He always told me that three crew members of the Mohawk were unfortunate enough to have their heads sheared clean off by the machine gun bullets of the German planes, making the work of clearing up particularly unpleasant.

Interestingly enough, German propaganda, (Lord "Haw Haw") said on British radio that "Repulse" had been sunk in that raid. Mother and Father knew that that was not so and that put the propaganda in its true perspective.

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