- Whitehouse, John
- Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
HMS Byron was one of the 78 American-built Destroyer Escorts (DEs) acquired by the Royal Navy as welcome additional convoy escort vessels under Lend-Lease arrangements, and immediately employed in the Battle of the Atlantic. The following account recalls an unusual incident, unrelated to enemy action, during a return convoy from North Russia.
The US-built Destroyer Escorts in Royal Navy service during WW2 were never really considered robust enough to be considered ‘Destroyer Anything’ and were reclassified by the Royal Navy as frigates. On their arrival in the UK, they were stripped of many of their original American refinements (out went the coffee percolators and drinking water coolers) to be replaced by more mundane regular-issue items (in came depth charges and Hedgehog mortars) to bring the new renamed Captain Class ((32 USN DEs of the Evarts Class were lent to the RN, of which five were lost, and the remainder returned to the USA for scrapping after the war. The Captain Class frigates of WW2 were all named after distinguished Captains RN.))1 up to Western Approaches standards. However, for our current purposes, the salient facts were the state-of-the-art Sick Bay and the 27 foot Montagu whaler seaboat on the port side.
The Sick Bay
The lavishness of the Sick Bay and its equipment was not matched by the expertise of the sole member of the medical staff. Leading Sick Berth Attendant Stockwell was an admirable fellow in many ways, much admired for his open-handedness with the family planning requisites and the elegant way he read us the more lurid passages from the chapter on anti-social diseases in his Seafarer’s Medical Companion. He would be the first to admit, however, that Doctor Crippen ((Dr. Crippen was a notorious serial murderer, caught and sentenced to gaol in the late 19th Century.)) was better qualified medically.
It was against this surgical background that our Captain developed appendicitis. Now the Captain, Lieutenant Commander Ken Southcombe, Royal Navy, was a gentleman to his fingertips and one would have expected him either to have his appendix brew up in the privacy of his own home, or at the very least, within comfortable hailing distance of the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar. ((RN Hospital Haslar, Gosport (near Portsmouth) was a formidable establishment, built during the Napoleonic Wars, to restore wounded sailors to further service, and later in living memory, feared for its reputation of retaining naval patients for at least a fortnight (for observation) before their release back to their ships, no matter what their suffering, diagnosis, or treatment!)) Not so. The spot he chose was off North Cape, in a violent snowstorm, on our way back from Murmansk. We reviewed our surgical capabilities: things were not encouraging.
The Seafarer’s Companion and Medical Expertise
The Seafarer’s Companion had some fascinating diagrams, in full colour, of the human internal pipework, but they looked tricky to follow, and the First Lieutenant, and honorary ship’s Medical Officer, David Repard, admitted that his recollections of his Dartmouth First Aid Course did not bring to mind any mention of ‘hands-in’ surgery. Our only hope – we put it that way, rather than ‘the Captain’s only hope’ – was to be talked through the procedure by the Escort Group’s Doctor, who was way out on the beam of the convoy in HMS Redmill (a sister ship). According to Damon Runyon, the chances of anything happening are seven to four against, but the doctor did not rate ours as high as this, so he decided to come across to our ship.
Far from being a solution, this decision compounded the problem. It was nearly dark, snow showers had reduced visibility to about a cable, we were rolling gunwales under, there was heavy cloud, with nothing much visible anywhere, even supposing there had been anything to see. As an added complication, we were towing Foxers, ((Unifoxers – a mechanical pipe noisemaker towed astern of convoy escorts to decoy acoustic torpedoes – a very cheap and highly effective device for its purpose.)) and therefore had a lot of wire out over the stern. Nevertheless, undaunted, we launched the whaler.
The seaboat’s crew was not the carefully selected group of experts one might expect under the circumstances, but as was common practice aboard Byron, all alarms and excursions were dealt with by the cruising Watch on Deck – in this case, B gun’s crew. The only exception on this occasion was that the expedition was put in the charge of Mr. Midshipman Peter Topping RNVR, an appointment which he maintains to this day was a tribute to his seamanship skills, rather than, as was suspected at the time, that Mr. Topping had just sufficient seniority to divert criticism from everybody else if disaster should strike.