The nice thing about the Navy was that when lads got killed - and lads do get killed - they used to take all their belongings... All the private personal gear was sent home to the parents. That was theirs, with a lovely letter saying how brave they'd died - something nice. But then all the Navy equipment that you'd been issued with, that was all taken up on a special day and it was auctioned, and they would auction a pair of socks one at a time, and lads who were getting 30 shillings, £2.00 a fortnight, would bid a pound for a sock. It'd have holes in, but they would pay a pound, and then when they got it they would give it back and say 'Auction it again' and those things were auctioned over and over again and it was nothing for £400 to be raised at an auction for that lad, and then it would be sent to the parents. Not as a gift - it's the sale of his possessions - and the parents knew no different, and I always thought that was a wonderful... That was the Navy for me.
In 1942 I was a stoker on HMS Cotswold when it was blown up by a mine off Sheerness. At the time I was in the stoker’s mess deck with the Lieutenant, Peter Gerald Charles Dickens. As the water rose he said to me, “Higson, I think we should go up top”. “Good idea sir”, I said. The decks were awash and I lost all my kit. We were towed in and beached at HMS Ganges and I came ashore in a boiler suit, vest and underpants. They were soaked in oil and when I was kitted up again I had to throw them away. As a result I had to pay for the vest and underpants.
On Christmas Eve 1942 I was on HMS Obdurate, a destroyer, which acted as escort for vital convoys to Murmansk. The waves were mountainous, the gales fierce and the weather biting cold. The men were bruised and battered by the conditions and then on the last day of the year we were attacked off the North Cape. We were badly damaged and a destroyer and minesweeper were lost but none of the convoy. The flotilla leader, Captain Sherbrooke was later awarded the Victoria Cross. We sailed into Kola Inlet to refuel and then on to Scapa Flow where we were welcomed as conquering heroes and visited by the King.
In 1989 I received a medal from the Russians for the part I played in the Arctic convoys to Russia. The medals were awarded in 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. It arrived in a plain white envelope by recorded delivery and it brought tears to my eyes
You couldn't sleep on a hammock, it was too hot and they had these things directing what they called “fresh air” but the lads used to fight to put them on their bodies, and you were riddled with prickly heat, and the prickly heat would go septic. Because the decks were steel and we used to curse them because we used to long for a wooden deck ship where you could take your shoes off and go in your bare feet - that was then - and if you touched any of the rails when you were going down because we were always stripped to the waist, just shorts at sea, and if you just touched a rail then you got a blister because it was so hot you just burned. So everything was mad hot and it was terribly uncomfortable and of course were reading now about the seas and the typhoons and the hurricanes and that was another enemy because she could be vicious the sea, you know, she could have us on our hands and knees praying when it got really rough. There was seventy foot to the flight deck out of the water and just thirty foot underneath, so when she rolled - she rolled , and... I got used, I didn't suffer too badly, but a lot of lads did. And when she pitched it was like going up in an express - I worked in the pits for a while and the cages go down very, very quickly, well it's like that, you used to go up to the top and then you'd come down very, very quickly and then she's settle in and then you'd feel everything come up and then...
I was in the Merchant Navy in May 1940. I was on the MV Highland Brigade, sailing from Tilbury to Buenos Aires. It was a refrigerated ship, and we filled up with beef and took it back to London. We did the same trip again but unloaded at Liverpool. En route we picked up survivors from another ship, the captain and seven men, but only three survived the voyage. The others, including the captain were buried at sea.
In 1944 we were on our way to another operation against the Japanese with the task force in the Indian Ocean. The fleet became aware of the presence of a submarine and the crews alerted. Suddenly a message was received from the sub, who was equally aware of the destroyers and was eager to identify herself. The word spread that she was one of ours and the relief all round was obvious.
The submarine had become dangerously low on provisions, oil and water. We, as an aircraft carrier, were deemed more able to spare these so she was ordered to surface and come alongside, with both of us hove to. The rest of the fleet sailed on, since to remain stationary for long could invite trouble.
The captain informed us that she would be alongside for one hour whilst the exchange would be made, anyone wishing to board the submarine should make their way at once. Fearing a queue I lost no time and was amazed to find myself the only one, but I made my way across to the sub and clambered down inside. Once below I shouted, “anyone from Bolton?” to receive the reply, “I’m from Farnworth!” with the owner of the voice coming to meet me. The chat was mostly of home and how long since we were there, when unexpectedly he told me ”I wouldn’t want to be in her for a gold clock. You’re a prize for any sub and we could so easily have had you had we been an enemy.” He added, “They can’t see us down here.”
“I am glad you weren’t an enemy”, I told him “The destroyers looked eager to find you.”
On my return I expressed my surprise that more of us hadn’t been interested. “Had the Japs become interested we would have broken off and you would have been a submariner.” was the reply. Strangely enough I would not have minded.