WWII Memories
WWIIMEMORIES
Personal Histories of World War Two

Submarine Detection in the Royal Navy

This is a record of an interview with Captain Rowntree, grandfather of Hannah Putnam.

I was in the Royal Navy. Before the war I joined the reserves when I was 18.

I had a job getting into the reserves as I was a little fellow and small across the chest.

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I have no physical scars and wounds, but I lost a lot of friends and my brother.
Captain Rowntree

They kept sending me away to eat pudding.

It took three goes to get in and Portsmouth didn't throw me out.

Just before war broke out I went to Portland on a submarine detector course at the submarine school and I was in armed trawlers throughout the war at various grades.

At the start I was an able seaman.

I was a Navy Seal Submarine Detector.

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I was 19 when the war started and I was fishing.

In the war I was first on a trawler called Hampshire in Grimsby.

I eventually reached the rank of captain of a super tanker.

I liked the sea, so anything to do with the sea I enjoyed.

We sailed from Grimsby on the Hampshire, an armed trawler, armed with a four-inch gun and one St. Louis {? A Lewis machine gun?) combat.

This was the only ammunition we had except for ASDIC depth charges for dropping on submarines.

We had early sonar.

We sailed from Grimsby at the end of September for Portland where I did work up trials on ASDICs and dropping depth charges.

My job was to work the ASDIC equipment and to look after the explosive depth charges and anything to do with explosives.

I was excited when the war broke out and eager to get there.

I had no fear, we knew we were going to war at least a year before.

I got on well with the rest of the crew.

All the people on the ship were from fishing sections of Grimsby, Hull, Aberdeen, Fleetwood, so we all knew one another and were like a little family.

The crews were not very big.

There were 19 people in the crew on the Hampshire.

We were quite cosmopolitan.

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The skipper was an ex-skipper of a trawler, the mate was an ex-mate of a trawler, it went down like that.

Eventually I passed out for a leading seaman and did a higher submarine detector course then could strip the set down and put it together.

But, back to Portland for now.

From there we went on escort duty in the North Atlantic.

There was one destroyer and about five armed trawlers were the escort.

Some of the merchant ships were more heavily armed than we were, but we had ASDICs and could detect submarines.

We did about 5 convoys then we were told we were handing these ships over to the French navy, because they needed the depth chargers.

I was detailed to stay behind and explain to the French how to use them, but I couldn't speak any French, but I managed to get it done anyway, but it was like a comedy (the Americans didn't have ASDICs either).

The lieutenant-commander, who was in charge also stayed behind with our skipper.

All the rest went to Lowestoft, which was our depot.

After a fortnight they went back to England because they weren't doing any good in France as no one could speak French.

On the way back the commander asked me if I would go in his next ship with him, and I agreed.

I joined the next ship, which was fitted out in Hull, which was another trawler.

I could go home at night while she was being fitted out, and come back to the dock and have a look around.

ASDICs were secret; few people knew anything about them.

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When I sat the exam for the submarine detector course, when they passed I was given twelve pounds, to keep it quiet.

We had a civilian ASDIC officer in charge from the depot who was an ex-Cambridge under graduate, a fine young fellow.

I had been used to the big type trawlers you get in Hull.

The next boat was a small funny looking boat different to the huge ships I was used to, and the officer had said to me I would be surprised.

And we went down to have a look, this little thing was laid alongside the wall.

A funny little thing it was, and it had its awnings rigged.

He said, "When you finish your time in Portland you're bound for Singapore."

So I thought, "I'm not sure I like this but there's nothing I can do about it anyhow."

We commissioned this ship in Hull but we did not go to Singapore.

We did our trial and then we came back up to Scapa Flow where we joined what we called a 13th strike force.

That sounds a good name but it only consisted of five trawlers and they were only little ones: we only had a six-pounder gun and four Lewis guns, and ASDICs of course.

Then the Norwegian campaign came on an we were bound for Norway, but unfortunately we were attacked by German bombers on the way and a near miss put the engine out of action so we had to be towed back to Scapa Flow.

We remained here for six weeks to two months.

Part of the time we were beside a depot.

Then they decided to tow us to Belfast to Harland and Woolf shipyard to repair the ship because ships were very important and we were losing a lot of ships.

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If a ship could be saved, it would be.

I was taken out of the ship in Belfast, with one or two other members of the crew and we were sent down to Dover where we were employed taking soldiers from Dunkirk for two days.

During that time we were bombed very very frequently by German planes.

They were dive bombers - Stukas - with whistles.

They looked like flies coming down, and howled.

I came back from Dunkirk and went back to my own ship in Belfast, which by this time was almost repaired.

There were five of us: three trawlers and two converted whale catchers.

From then on we patrolled the North Channel and around the coast of Ireland and accompanied convoy ships half way across the Atlantic.

We were based in Larne.

Then I was sent to Campbelltown in Scotland to take a higher submarine detectors course.

It was then I was told I was going on a foreign draft out to Egypt.

That was the beginning of 1941.

We went out to Cape Town first and then took a train to Durban for three nights and two days.

We were very well treated down there.

They couldn't do enough for you if they knew you were from England.

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In Durban we took over two whale-catchers, which were being converted for mine sweeping.

We had to sail from Durban to Port Said, in Egypt.

There we had the final conversion to mine-sweeping.

When we were all fitted we swept the Suez Canal and out to sea for 40 miles and then turned round to come back.

We did this regularly.

All this time the Germans were bombing Port Said.

I was then taken out of this ship as I should have been in an ASDIC ship all along with being a higher submarine detector.

They sent me to Alexandria and I joined a ship called the Klo.

This was another whale-catcher, but it had ASDICs and it escorted ships from the ports out of the Mediterranean.

We were only allowed to carry with us enough gear for one change and so if you were sunk that was all you would lose.

The rest of our gear stayed in Alexandria.

This was October 1941.

We did two or three runs up to Tobruk and on one of these runs were shelled by a shore battery and it blew a hole in the side between the cross bunker.

The fuel flooded the ASDIC area.

It was then taken off the ship and put in the ASDIC workshop, where I had to clean the stuff up.

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I had to get all the oil out and we didn't get spares.

The next ship after the Klo, we were hit by a dive-bomber.

Fortunately it was a small bomb and it hit the boiler, which was stronger than the bomb, so the force went up and not down, or it would have blown the bottom out of the ship.

The two officers on the bridge were killed.

The first thing I knew was when I slipped on all this blood.

You had to get used to it.

I have no physical scars and wounds, but I lost a lot of friends and my brother.

I passed an exam for petty officer, while I was out there.

I was transferred to an ex Hull trawler and we used to escort ship up to Tobruk etc.

I was out there for two and a half years and then was transferred home, where I was sent to school (to nautical college) and was then promoted to chief petty officer and was then put on a motor mine sweeper.

I was there for two months and then transferred to Lowestoft onto a brand new trawler.

For the next 18 months until the end of the war I was with her.

We were escorting then for D-day.

Escorting stuff to the beaches and bringing them back at night.

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That was my war, not very exciting.

The war wasn't all bad, you had some good times, but there were no good points about the war.

I made good friends.

You were afraid and would do silly things.

Like if I was out on the deck and the alarm bells rung I put a vest on to stop the bullets.

Silly, but a superstitious something.

When I left the [Royal] Navy I joined the Merchant Navy.

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