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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 8
Russian Convoys & The "Duke of York"

My father was given the choice, he told us, of staying with Repulse, or moving, on promotion to the brand new King George V class battleship, HMS "Duke of York" often referred to by him as the "Duke of Work". He knew that the decks of Repulse were lightly armoured - they had to reduce weight somewhere - to give her the required speed, and consequently she was vulnerable to air attack so he decided to go to "Duke of York". He joined her on 3rd September 1941 and served until 9th March 1943, as Chief Petty Officer. She was commanded by an Admiral called Harcourt who had a strange walk and was known throughout the Navy as Hop along Harcourt. He doted, apparently, on his daughter, a ballerina, who married the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

The ship was regarded as happy and efficient, even though her crew, when she was commissioned, consisted of 85% "hostilities only" men. The ship was engaged on escort and blockade duties for most of this time, but prior to that she was suddenly dispatched to a top secret task, beginning, again, at Scapa Flow. Sub Lieutenant R.A. Bennett aboard the ship at the time wrote as follows:

"Early on the 10th December 1941, we received top secret orders to proceed to the Clyde. We sailed immediately and made the difficult passage by night through the Minches and past Skerry Vore with no help from lighthouses or light buoys, which were blacked out. As we entered the mouth of the Clyde we heard on the ship's radio that our sister ship, the Prince of Wales, and the battle cruiser Repulse, had been sunk off Malaya by the Japanese. We had received immediate orders from the Admiralty to return to Scapa in case the Japanese success induced the Tirpitz (the German battleship) to attack our Atlantic convoys. So back to Scapa once again in the darkness. For the third night running our brilliant navigating officer go us safely through".

All this maneuvering was to enable Mr. Churchill to embark on 13th December for rapid transportation to the important "Arcadia" conference in Washington. This was a meeting of 26 countries (many of them quite minor) all working to defeat the German and Japanese powers; and to increase and co-ordinate war material production to that end. I have a photo of my father piping Churchill aboard at this time - a tale he told was this: "I was really honoured when I was given the job of "piping aboard" Winston Churchill and his daughter Sarah on their way to Canada in the early part of the war: I saluted, of course, as he came aboard. I then saluted his daughter, in the uniform of a Leading Wren. "Why do you salute my daughter, she is of a lower rank that you?" I replied "It is a tradition in the Navy, Sir, to salute all ladies as they come aboard ship". "Huh", he replied, "the Navy and it's traditions".

Winston Churchill aboard the Duke of York 1941
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister, boarding HMS Duke of York, December 1941 bound for the U.S.A. with some of the War Cabinet. John Hornby piping him aboard.

HMS Duke of York off Iceland 1941
The Duke of York, heading around the North of Iceland, fell in with the most appalling weather, and she could keep up no more speed than 9 knots.

The upside of course was the U boats could not operate at all, so she struggled though, and, as the weather eased, pushed on hard for Halifax.

My father spoke of Churchill endlessly pacing the quarterdeck, heavily wrapped up in winter clothing, and left alone by the ships officers. Churchill was eventually delivered safely to the vital conference but said that he may as well have travelled by submarine, and he flew back, in an equally risky operation, that has been well documented.

After this episode the ship was again fully employed on Russian Convoy support work. The book "Convoy" by Paul Kemp gives the following information about where she was. "From 1st - 4th March 1942 she was stationed between 5 degrees West and 14 degrees East in support of PQ12 and QP8 (PQ was the code for outbound convoys to Russian and QP were home bound) From 5th - 13th March she was off Reykjavik, Iceland, and the Kola inlet. From 28th April to 2nd May 1942 she was in support of PQ15, and in June 1942 she was positioned NE of Jan Mayen Island in support of the fateful convoy PQ17".

HMS Duke of York
HMS Duke of York - Russian Convoys, 1942

The story of this convoy is one of the great tragedies of the war, well documented at the time. Suffice it to say that Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, who made the fateful decision to scatter the convoy, was on Duke of York at that time. The ship sailed again to an area NW of Jan Mayen Island to support another convoy, PQ18. In between times, on the 8th June 1942, the ship was used to transport HM the King George VI to Quebec, Canada via Halifax, and there are photographs and documents in the archives about the event. This was a pre D day conference of all the best experts. Also on 11th August 1942 the King visited the ship in Scapa Flow, Orkney and there is a photograph showing my father piping, him aboard. He used to tell the following story about an event around this time. I have been unable to verify it but I have no reason to question the truth.

King George VI aboard HMS Duke of York 1942
June 1942. King George VI boarding HMS Duke of York. John Hornby piping him aboard.

"We'd had a bad night with the U boats. Ships were being torpedoed all around. We saw a tanker disappear completely in a fireball. There was wreckage and bodies everywhere. Our own men. Imagine how we felt. Later on one of the destroyers got a U boat, and there were survivors. We were dispatched to pick them up. There weren't many. They were frozen and covered in oil and could hardly get up the scrambling nets that we'd lowered over the side. Some fell back before they made it to the deck. For those that did, we were waiting. We stamped on their fingers and they fell back and drowned. This was war, and they'd killed our sailors. It was the worst thing I ever did in all the time I served, and the only thing I really felt badly about. Still do, to this day. At that time, in those circumstances, it was, I guess, understandable enough".

My father had a friend from the neighbouring village of Tarleton called Frank McKean, and we all went to visit him in the village when they were both on leave. He had the distinction of smashing up one of the aircraft cranes on the Duke of York in some sort of mishap, and Gloria and I remember him as a very funny man. He called himself "Frank in a tank" for some reason, and the whole visit was a never ending laugh.

In 1944 The Duke of York came into Gladstone Dock Liverpool for repair and the family went on board. We were given tea what a treat on the ship, and the bakery made a beautiful white bread unheard of and unobtainable in wartime Britain! We feasted, as I recall, on that alone.

Some time later, when the ship called at the Kola Inlet, North Russia, during the Russian Convoy era, she was visited by Admiral Arseni Golovko, C in C of the Soviet Northern Red Fleet, and in his book "The Red Fleet", Golovko states: "Like a good host, Admiral Fraser (on board the Duke of York) showed me over the whole ship, which indeed made a powerful impression, and even invited me into the ship's bakery where we were regaled with some good newly baked buns. After eating one I praised both it and the bakers, little suspecting that this would lead to a surprise. When we had disembarked from the battleship a bulky sack was lowered onto the deck of the launch containing a vast quantity of buns. What you might call the acme of hospitality!". Another story about the ship is that she led a convoy of other allied ships at great speed up a 45 mile long fjord leading to the town of Akureyri, North Iceland. Visibility at the time was atrocious and the whole fleet thought that the "Duke's" captain had gone mad when he said "follow me" at speed. What the others did not know was that the ship was fitted with "this new fangled radar thing" which by this time she had thoroughly tried and tested! My father was on board at that time, and I think it explains the confident, rapid trip into Scapa Flow described before.

In the New Years Honours list, 1st January 1943, my father was awarded the British Empire Medal given to lower ranks for long meritorious service (it is the same today). The investiture was at Buckingham Palace on 23rd February 1943. Mother, Auntie Nellie, Gloria and I went with him to receive it; Mother and Gloria went into the Palace, Auntie Nellie looked after me outside. There are photographs in the archives.

It must have been his proudest personal moment, but he was always modest about it. It is positioned first in his row of many medals.

John Hornby - British Empire Medal
Investiture of John Hornby with British Empire Medal, Buckingham Palace, 1943

All along the war years it was a practice of my mother and father to follow a private code so that he could say where he was without breaching any secrecy rules. For example, if he wrote or telephoned to say that he had counted fifteen seagulls perched on one of the lifeboats, mother would look up number fifteen which would have shown that he was in Cyprus. The code went up to No. 47 Ireland.

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