Liberating Europe
From D-Day to Berlin: The Allied Liberation of Europe

The Navy Convoys

  • Simpson
  • Ken
  • 86; born in 1919
  • Navy, Gunner
  • HULL
Photo of Ken Simpson

Summary: Ken Simpson was in the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Renown, the lead ship of a class of two 26,500-ton battlecruisers. He travelled all over the world during the war and was involved in the quest to sink the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.

Mr Simpson was interviewed at his home on 14th June, 2005.

So can you tell me your name please?
Ken Simpson.
How old are you now, Ken?
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The Captain spoke over the tannoy saying, "You have done well, lads. As a point of interest we have, in five months, travelled 33,535 nautical miles." At what a cost though!
Ken Simpson
I shall be 86 on 3rd August this year, I was born on 3rd August 1919. What was my father doing on Armistice Day, 11th November, 1918? You work it out! 9 months later and I popped out!
Yeah, First World War baby boom.
Actually, he had been at sea, and he had just come home, so he rejoiced that the war was over.
That's why I'm here. God knows why I am here now!
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Yeah. What branch of the forces were you in?
I was a seaman, but I was in the Territorial Army at 17 in the tank corps in Hull, and I broke my apprenticeship when I was nearly 19, and I joined the Royal Navy. I was being taught to be an electrician, you see, at Ideal Boilers, which was a radiator company known as National Radiator Company in the thirties.
So, you see, I had a slight engineering background, then I went into the Navy, taught as a seaman, then you branch off, you see. You did too much in the Navy as a seaman, yet you had to go into gunnery, and torpedo work, and all different jobs, and you really qualified in two or three different subjects. On the outbreak of war I was an ordinary seaman. I joined in June 1938. See, I did about 6 months basic training, doing a period of about three weeks in gunnery, about the same in the torpedo school, and about the same in the signals, but don't ask me to send a signal now, I have forgotten how!
Anyhow, the New Year came. We were just finishing our training. So to get the feel of a ship we were in Davenport barracks, and transferred to a ship to get the feel of it. From there I went onto to the Cornwall, a Cruiser, and in February 1939 we had a 'flu epidemic in Plymouth. Well, I suddenly woke up one morning, I couldn't get out of my hammock, the lads had to take me to sickbay, but sickbay was full, and I was sent to hospital in Plymouth. I was in there for a week. Well, during that period the Cornwall sailed from Devenport to its home port in Chatham, so I never went back to that ship.
So, then I went back to the depot, did the entry routine, and a few weeks later went on the HMS Royal Oak. So, I did a spring cruise, went to Brest in Brittany, and was with the French Navy for a week, then we came back. Then had a regatta, and then were paid off in Portsmouth. About the end of June 1939 I came home on a week's leave, one thing and another. I desperately needed get a ship when I returned to the depot in Devenport, you know?
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Yes, yeah.
A small boarding party and I took a Destroyer named Wolverine up to Rosyth. So we took that there, and came back by train, overnight. War was imminent, we knew of course, so we started putting sandbags in the barracks. We knew what was coming off, and, I joined another ship, which was the Battle Cruiser Renown. Well, I must say, I was lucky having the bad dose of 'flu because I might have been on the Cornwall, because, as you know, the Cornwall, Royal Oak, and Wolverine were lost at sea, and I'm here, so I survived it, luckily.
Joined it.
So about two days before the war started 3rd September I joined it at Portsmouth we were packed like sardines. When we got there in the lorry, overnight, and 36 hours later we were at sea. We went to sea and we were in a state, throwing things away, ladders, dockyard cable and stuff, trying to get things clean, and I was an ordinary seaman and we were all given our stations. My action stations was the 'A' magazine, you see, on the Renown, but my cruising stations watch was a submarine lookout, you see. There were three of us in a pocket on the portside. The best lookout for periscopes of enemy submarines (U-Boats).
Oh right.
Well, going on watch at midnight, this was the day war broke out, and eh the Chief Petty Officer said, "You. Young Ginger." I had ginger hair. "You had better keep a good look out because we have had a signal from one of the escorting destroyers they got a ping on their ASDIC set."
Yeah Yeah.
So please be careful, so you do about an hour and then have a rest and go back and its about 1.45 or there about I don't quite know exactly near the west of Ireland the liner Athenia was torpedoed with the loss of some civilian lives.
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Well our Destroyer escort had to leave us to go to pick up survivors so we steamed at a hell of a speed up north in the direction of Scapa Flow.
So I was almost in the first incident of the war. I even beat John Wayne, you know? The Duke?
We gets to Scapa Flow the next day and the other fleet were there and then a recognisance plane came over we open fired but never hit it but found out there were no bombs dropped so then within a few days, I can't tell you the date exactly when but we were on a patrol with the Hood, they called the Mighty Hood and whilst we were there the Royal Oak was there at its moorings.
You know in Scapa Flow you know the story of how the Oak was sunk by a U-Boat?
I thought it looked real nice and smart, I liked the ship but erm she didn't go out much. We went on patrol with the Hood and the Ark Royal, aircraft carrier and we did a patrol somewhere in the Iceland area nothing happened we thought the Germans were at sea but nothing happened there. I cant get it into true chronological order because we were told which I thought was unfair NOT to keep a diary and I bet when you read all these stories I bet some people even had a ship's log, it was very unfair that. I have been writing a book for years mainly by memory.
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So we come back and we had the admiral on board and then we set sail and finished up in Sierra Leone we were after the Graf Spee, a German Pocket Battleship.
Graf Spee, she was down in the South Atlantic and we were based in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
We did a few patrols. There was quite a bit of fun about this story but we went round to the Falklands that's where I started my torpedo course, nobody used to go back to the torpedo school in the UK, but they thought well we have that many experienced sailors from the great war there, they had some of the old ones that had been at Jutland and they could tell you a story and they were good instructors so they decided to do a torpedo course on board and it entailed a lot of electrical work so I was interested, I was still in the guns, you see.
We went round the Cape into the Indian Ocean; the Doric Star was sunk by the Graf Spee. I was some of our liners and eh one or two German ships which suited one but they were experts at scuttling ships you know the Germans could get a ship down quicker than we could and we had to sink one or two. I have a photograph but I forget the ship we had to sink them because otherwise this was round the Cape Town the homes that way.
Yeah, into the Indian Ocean.
As you came round there our Ark Royal's planes had spotted it you see, so the Germans knew then that somebody was round and about, anyhow we just got to it but the b****r had been scuttled so we had to open fire and sink it because it could have been a danger to shipping.
Neutral shipping.
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People use neutral ships you see.
Anyhow we finished up in Cape Town on the ship and missed them then a signal went through coming south again St. Helena and between there and the African coast it was reported that later that the Graf Spee had passed us going the other way 29 nautical miles away, its not much you know, in the large expanse of the South Atlantic.
You see its not much at sea but the funny thing about it at that particular period I had been on search lights, while up on the bridge, on searchlight control and there is a Senior Torpedo man old Robbie who had been in the great war and when the war broke out he was 20 years old and got recalled (48 years).
I said, "'Ere, Robbie, we have been at sea now three months will we ever use these?", he said the day will probably come don't worry they're here for a purpose and honestly believe you me about five minutes later the lookout shouts out and says he saw some suspicious objects portside so an so well on portside we looked open shutters that means put your lights on pushed the button well he did and up she went, it was a merchant ship one of our own.
So down shutters and back. We ploughed on and a few days later we finished up in Rio. When we had been in Rio it was neutral country you see neutral at that time. We were alongside and the first time we had seen bright lights and all that like for a little bit a few weeks, like.
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Anyhow the signal came through that the Ajax, Achilles and Exeter had been in an incident with Graf Spee, River Plate all know about that, although some of it is not quite true. So we came back all those miles like and we went back to Freetown then the signal came through go back down south again and pick up the Ajax, the Achilles went into New Zealand, I think, or the other way round, went into Goose Green, or wherever, in the Falklands, Sandy to get a refit. Well we had to bring her back to Freetown then we got another signal to go back and pick the Exeter up, we went back got the Exeter and came back to Freetown and oiled ship and then we were ordered to take her back to Plymouth.
Whilst we were approaching the English Channel we passed a British liner named the Sultan Star. We sent the usual signal wishing them a safe journey etc. A few hours later she was sunk by a U-Boat. We often thought, after, whether the sub was after the Exeter, however we were all relieved when we passed through the Plymouth Sound. The Captain spoke over the tannoy saying, "You have done well, lads. As a point of interest we have, in five months, travelled 33,535 nautical miles." At what a cost though! Anyway, we had a week's leave - lovely weather! - Every time you come from the Tropics it has to be cold and snowing again! So we went back - February?
We caught the little patrol and were told that Admiral Whitworth was on board. We knew the Germans were going to invade Norway in the end so we went there to try to stop shipping. It was real murky, the weather and I was in the magazine down below and was told to close up in the first degree and we were down there for about 36 hours - believe you me with your anti-flash gear on it wasn't very nice.
Our Petty Officer was a very experienced P.O. and they had to change their plans, we were going to go into Narvik to bombard but there was a reason why we didn't and I know the reason and I will NOT tell anyone what it was. Otherwise it makes one of our Admirals a bloody idiot! Whitworth was transferred to HMS Warspite.
Anyhow, we rigged a bridges buoy and got rid of him and this Petty Officer, who was such an experienced Petty Officer with destroyers, he went on there temporary, to do his job. He did his job very well because he got a Distinguished Service Medal. I believe the Destroyer's name was Hardy or Hunter.
Me, I was 20 years old and was put in charge. I had one lad, 17 years old and two little lads, 16, and they joined us when we commissioned in Portsmouth in '39, when they were 15. Well, Nelson had 12-year-old boys, didn't he? - brave little kids known as powder boys.
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Anyhow, we opened fire - we didn't know what we was firing at but it was the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the Gneisenau hit us twice. Fortunately, it went through the mast. The other went through the gun room, midshipman's quarters and we only had one casualty, and the person lost his big toe. One or two of the pom pom crews on the upper deck got a bit of shrapnel, up on the deck. So we came out of it really well. Later on, we found out in our turret - you see A turret was seamen, B turret was Marines, Y turret was seamen (gunners) but they were aft and they didn't fire the aft guns, there were only two guns. But it worked out that with our estimation and all that business, that we must have hit her and it was the Gneisenau that we hit, but tragically, I was pumping it out, they were passing me cordite, passing it through to the handling room, below the magazine there's the shell room, then the handling room, the shell first, put the hydraulics to it, then the cordite goes in, the shell goes in. Anyhow, about a year later we captured some Prisoners of War and they were from the Scharnhorst. We captured a tanker and taken them Prisoners of War, you see and what happened, the Ark Royal. Ark Royal's planes were having a trip round and they seen one or two of the British Merchant Seaman had got a bag of flour up and put SOS on the deck and that was an old signal, it changed into Mayday long before the last war. Why they ever changed it I'll never know! Anyhow they reported it so we went there and got them in time. I think they scuttled our ship; anyway we got the Prisoners of War. They were good humoured fellows. We put them down below in our prison, but they weren't like Nazis, they were just kids and during interrogation, we found out that we had killed 236 Germans, and I often think about that. War is murder.
We got hit twice, the sea was a bit rough and we went back to Scapa and I looked at the ship and the blister, it looked like a sardine tin, so we went to Rosyth and made friends there and got patched up. We then got some leave but nobody knew about this. I went dancing. I met the wife just before the war. Nobody knew, we were so secretive about Narvic.
I survived that one, I got choked up with cordite, its very bad down there. I did another patrol or two. We rejoined our Admiral, who became the Vice Admiral.
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We used the search light and fired at the tail of one of the aircraft. The Italian pilot was trying to get over the rock. He nearly got over but our 4.5 HA guns were on target. I saw it blown out of the sky.
Ken Simpson
My birthday was on 3rd August and I was going to have a 21st birthday do when Renown reached gib. We were a bit late getting into harbour. We just got tied up and the Vichy French were capitulating. Half the fleet were in the Mediterranean. Of course, we were afraid that the Germans would want to grab these. It had to be done because Churchill took over then, in May 1940. He was the First Lord of the Admiralty in the Great War. He was very experienced. He expected reprisals. We were on our way to Gibraltar but the fleet had knocked hell out of some ships that bombarded Casablanca, its all been written down in history, so naturally we were expecting reprisals. When we got there the first night I thought we'll get a drink ashore in some of the bars with the lads, but the Italians had different ideas. They'd come into the war and a couple of their aircraft had decided to bomb Gibraltar, hoping to hit some of our ships. I went up straightaway and climbed on to search light control. the guns were firing. We used the search light and fired at the tail of one of the aircraft. The Italian pilot was trying to get over the rock. He nearly got over but our 4.5 HA guns were on target. I saw it blown out of the sky.
A few weeks later the French came. 'We were told we had to keep on our toes cos Admiral Somerville was expecting reprisals. Well, the next night I thought I would go out - no chance. A little trawler came alongside of us, a minesweeper. The first thing we knew, Freddie, my mate, he shouted out "Hey!" They turned up along side us, we were tied up to the mole. I said it's a pity we can't get the cranes out and pull you in. Freddie knew some of the crew living on Hessle Road.
One shouted, "There's no need to be cheeky! Come down for a drink." We only had our rum ration so we went down there, had a rum or two. It was very nice. I said, "We'll see you ashore tomorrow."
All of a sudden, the Admiral had kept the 4.5 guns closed up, at action stations. He was crafty, he knew what he was doing. The Vichy French came over to bomb us. My job was to go round the upper structure and make sure the light fittings were OK. The steward and the captain always have a sea cabin. Someone said that the old man's light was giving him trouble, so I said I'd have a look at it. I had my toolbag strapped round me. I repaired it. All of a sudden there were bombs dropping alongside of us. There was such a shattering. When I was going down to the lower deck the Admiral was here and me and him got splattered with glass. The Admiral had spotted it and he looked up and he thought the challenge light had been shattered. He said Up you go, young man. I could see the bombs coming down. Then there was a lull in the firing. Well in that two hours he decided that we would get to hell out of it. The Ark Royal probably followed us, and we went out to sea. We were still firing guns. We were out at sea for about two days, before we went back, and this is the heart-breaking part, Stella had come alongside the mole when we had left and she went up and had gone. Hull lads, one or two from Grimsby.
Was the Stella a trawler?
Yes, converted to a minesweeper. You know Gill, the writer from Hull who has written about trawlers, and Hull lost a lot of trawlers and he put in his report - I believe the Stella Sirus was struck by the Vichy French. Alex was correct.
We were covering the Malta convoys and the Merchant Navy ones. We were very busy. In November we were in the Med(iterranean), just past the Balearics and a signal came through that someone had just spotted the Italian fleet. It was reported just after that they were two to one. They out-numbered us.
The climate was warmer and down in the turret it was murder. We didn't know what was happening. It appears that there was a sudden ceasefire and they turned tail and went back home. That was lucky, really. The cordite gets loose and it is hard to breathe. We got by there, that was November 1940. In February, 1941 we opened fire again. I had been transferred to torpedoes. I was still doing searchlights at night time. In the daytime I was on damage control. I lost my job as submarine lookout. We bombarded Genoa. There were a lot of transport ships there and there were Italian merchant ships feeding Rommel, across the desert. The poor fisherman, the natives, were there. They had these little fishing smacks, imagine how they felt when we were firing over them.
The Italians were very good at high level. The Germans used to attack the convoys, but the Merchant lads were very good, they were brave lads. The Italians were bombing at high level but they had changed from bombs to aerial torpedoes. I think the Germans were using the bombs at low level. I was on the bridge. All of a sudden a flying torpedo went over and sunk. Funnily enough, I went bald and someone said to me, is that right, you were attacked by a flying tin fish! Always a joker among Renown's ship's Company.
My story just about ends there, but before we came home we were in the pursuit of the Bismarck. Once again as I'm telling the story there's a bit of professional jealousy comes in. Otherwise they'll think our Admiral wasn't as good as he was, but he was. We had orders to help the home fleet. The Bismarck had sunk. It was very fortunate how that shell went in the Hood. We knew at the time, our Skipper said it won't happen to us, because we'd had a refit, that took about three years in Portsmouth. That's why the ship was in such a mess when we joined it a few hours before the war. They were throwing ladders away and cables, allsorts. We had a different structure - the main deck had been reinforced. The Hood and the Repulse hadn't. I think it was psychology - they said over the tannoy that it would not happen to the Renown. I think what happened, a shell came down and hit the Hood like a bomb. It penetrated an auxiliary (magazine) and that in turn caused a chain reaction and up it went. There was a mistake made there. The Admiral should never have gone broadside. (Two torpedoes just missed us.) One of the Italian torpedoes was coming right to us and she run out of steam and went down just a few fathoms away from us. It could have hit us, could have penetrated the blister.
So, Bismarck, it got a bit rough towards the Bay of Biscay, and what happened there, there was the Cruiser Sheffield had to shadow her, she had to get in range, but just out sight of the Bismarck. We were getting very near. I saw the Swordfish go and come back. Three more went up in the air and the old story was, what brave pilots they were. They torpedoed the Bismarck and hit the propeller and that reduced the speed and they lost all manoeuvrability. She was a sitting duck. The Bismarck was the best ship. She was formidable. They said it was unsinkable, and it almost was. The loss of Ark Royal was a big blow to the Royal Navy.
We didn't get the praise we might have had, but nevertheless experience - the Bismarck, in my opinion was perhaps the greatest of all the leviathans.
So when did you leave the navy?
October 1945, then transferred to the Royal Naval Reserves until 1950.I finally came off the Renown in the Far East.
Meeting up with Winston Churchill, December 1944. One night we sailed from Scapa Flow to Halifax, Nova Scotia where after the Quebec Conference we were going to bring him home. Once night, something was wrong. I saw this chap leaning on some trunking. We were told not to disturb the 'Old Man'. We always referred to him as the PM. He was stood up asleep. He was a workaholic. We'd done away with some of the aircraft. One of the aircraft hangars was done up into a concert room - we used to have church services there, and we called it The Plaza. We put a film show on for him. He sat down and put a cigar in his mouth. and he was only there ten minutes before he got up and went to the map room. He was always working. He was always with it. I got on with him very well. I never spoke to him. He always spoke first. You never talk to them unless they talk to you - that's protocol. I was honoured to see the Queen last year. I was pushing a veteran in a wheelchair and Philip said something to him (in naval language) and the Queen was laughing. They have a sense of humour but you don't talk to them unless they talk to you.
I can't recollect the Air Force Senior Man but Dudley Pound was the first Sea Lord. Lord Ismay when he died, was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. One night I was checking the communications order from the bridge and was told to prime the torpedoes. You put a fulminate of mercury detonator into the warhead. He came up to me in a smart uniform. He asked what I was doing.
He said just above here, is Churchill's cabin. It wasn't, it was a bit more armoured than the others. He said, you've got a job! What if that went up, if we lost the Prime Minister. I said you wouldn't, sir, we know what were doing.
He sat down on the torpedo tube and said, "You take a lot of pride in this don't you?"
I said the reason why they're so nice is a bit of lick and polish. He said, you're from Yorkshire. I think you're a bit conscious of your accent. He said never be ashamed, talk how you want, its your language.
Churchill went to Harrow and was supposed to be a duffer at school. He was talking to one of our torpedo officers, an RNVR chap, a brilliant fellow. In the Ward Room the officers invited him for an evening meal. He was talking about the torpedoes and he said, during World War I was being instructed on how a torpedo worked, and I got half of it and an important signal came through, and I had to leave it and I never ever did finish the piece about the steering. The torpedo Officer said to him tomorrow morning, if the sea's calm, our men are going to strip a torpedo. We put it on the slings, it was near his quarters. He found time to come down.
The Torpedo Officer was instructing him verbally, and Churchill kept saying, yes I know that. When we came to the part where he was interrupted, 20 years ago, he signalled us to carry on from there.
The next time we had to take him to Tehran. It was very secret. I never saw him come aboard. He had an inspector from Scotland Yard to look after him. His own body guard.
Most regiments have their colours, you know Mike, Mike Bell, he knows, he can speak French a bit, he's a very very nice man. His father was at Normandy D-Day. A wonderful fellow, he's an expert on that. Doesn't say he is, but I know he is though. He can talk; he can talk about the Great War. I have friends that got killed in Normandy, and shipmates that got killed in the Mediterranean, I haven't told you about that one. I've been alongside them but at least you go and pay homage to them you see, like I did last Sunday, at the Hull cenotaph with the Normandy Veterans and, as usual, Mike was there.
I went last November, with my grandson Alvin on a pilgrimage to Malta, because I lost my best mate coming out of the Grand Harbour, Valetta. His sub hit a mine and all hands were lost. I had to go and lay a wreath to pay homage to all the brave men who lost their lives during the Malta Convoys and in the Atlantic.
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HMS Renown Battle Honours

  • Norway 1940
  • Atlantic 1940
  • Spartivento 1940
  • Mediterranean 1941
  • Bismarck Action 1941
  • Malta Convoys 1941-42
  • North Africa 1942
  • Arctic 1942-43
  • Sabang 1944
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Addition from Ken August 2005, to clarify his story about the search lights.

Renown, having done a sweep round the Falkland Islands, then went round the Cape into the Indian Ocean. We had been informed that the liner, Doric Star, had been sunk by the Graf Spee. A day or two later news came through that a couple of our merchant ships had been attacked. The Germans had apparently boarded the vessels and scuttled them. 'Jerry' was good at that game. The b****rs were quick at that lark, so we had to open fire and finish them off, otherwise they would have been a danger to neutral shipping.
Having fuelled ship at Cape Town, we were soon back at sea, and soon near to the island of St Helena. We passed the Graf Spee at a distance of 29 nautical miles. At that time I had begun to train as a torpedo man, and was on duty with a senior Officer, Old Robbie. He had been in the First World War and had been recalled into the Navy at the outbreak of WWII. We were on search light control, stationed near the compass platform in total darkness.
I had said to Robbie that we had been at war now for a period of just over three months, and had never used the search lights. He had said that there was always a first time, you know. Within minutes we heard the starboard lookout shouting out that he had sighted a suspicious object. The order to open shutters was given (turn the light on). We then switched on and there, in the full glare of the light, was a vessel, which turned out to be a British merchant ship.Soon, the news came through that the cruisers Exeter, Ajax and Achilles were engaged in battle (the Battle of River Plate - the first naval battle of the war) with the Graf Spee. This news came through whilst Renown was refuelling at Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), a neutral country, in 1939. We then returned to base at Freetown.
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