Ray Woodward, born 22 December 1923, Port Talbot, Wales
Died 18 January 2010, Port Talbot, Wales
“I joined the Royal Navy on August 29th, 1939, at the age of fifteen. A few days later, war was declared. We felt exhilarated, we weren’t scared at all. In any case, we had three years’ apprenticeship ahead of us. Originally it had been five years, but they reduced it to three almost as soon as the war started, because they knew they would be needing us.
We were a class of about thirty from all over the country – many were from naval families – and we were only the second class of Fleet Air Arm apprentices. They had two batches a year, and the first lot had arrived in January 1939. You had to express a preference on your application form for one of four options: Artificer (Electrical); Artificer (Airframes); Artificer (Engines); Artificer (Ordnance). I chose Electrical, and I must have done all right in the entrance exam, because I got my first choice. I wanted to go into the Fleet Air Arm because it was the up-and-coming thing.
I travelled up by overnight train – on my own – from Port Talbot to Edinburgh, and I remember walking up and down Princes Street while waiting for the train to take me across the Firth of Forth to the naval dockyard at Rosyth. I was bound for the training ship Caledonia, which was a former ocean liner commandeered during the First World War. I think it was a German ship that had been captured during that war. The first thing we were taught was how to sling a hammock. They provided you with a hammock, but they didn’t provide the stretchers for the ends – you had to make those yourself, later, out of wood. Without them the top of the hammock closed over you like a grave; and once you were in, it was difficult to get out. You had to learn to reach up to the bar above you and pull yourself up, then kick your legs over the side.
We had only been on Caledonia a short time when it was decided that the ship represented too big a target for the enemy, so it was taken out into the Firth of Forth and scuttled. We were transferred to a school about two miles away. We had to march down to the dockyard each morning and back at night. That kept you fit. The school had been taken over and we slept in some of the classrooms and used others for lessons. One or two days a week was “school” for us, learning the basics of electricity and magnetism, but also learning English and other academic subjects. The rest of the time we had workshop-based training, learning to work a lathe and other skills. Many of the instructors were retired naval personnel who had been recalled so that the younger men could go to war. Some were in their eighties – like I am now.
After a while, the Fleet Air Arm apprentices were separated from the other naval apprentices and we went by train to Lympne in Kent, along with our equipment, to continue our training at an RAF base there. Once again, after a short time, they decided it was too much of a target for the German bombers, so they transferred us, this time to Newcastle-under-Lyme in the Midlands. When we arrived at Newcastle-under-Lyme, we had to stay in the Town Hall until they sorted something else out for us. We used to stand on the balcony at the front of the Town Hall and wave at the girls passing in the street, trying to make a date with them. Soon we were sent to a place called Clayton Hall near Nuneaton – a stately home – which was gradually converted into a training school. Every day we travelled by bus to a garage in the town and did our practical training, then we were bussed back at night. We had to do exams every term.
In 1942 I completed my apprenticeship and was given the rank of Air Fitter (L) (the “L” stood for “electrical”) and went to HQ at Leigh-on-Solent, where I was allocated to HMS Siskin at Gosport. HMS Siskin was a shore base, not a sea-going ship. My job was mostly inspecting aircraft. Each plane had to have a routine weekly inspection, but they also had to be inspected after every thirty hours’ flying time. There was a team of us to service each plane, but we would not necessarily carry out our work at the same time. Perhaps I might finish doing the electrics, and just as I was leaving another fitter would arrive to service the engines.
The first plane I remember going on was a Swordfish. The Swordfish and the Albacore were bi-planes that carried torpedoes underneath. There were two machine guns pointing forward through the propeller. I would service the guns as well as the rest of the plane, which would involve checking the circuits to ensure they fired properly. Sometimes the pilot would ask you if you wanted a quick flip in the plane. You would say, “Yes, sir,” because the pilots were all officers. Going up in the Swordfish was an experience. I sat in the observer’s cockpit at the back. There was a machine gun there, but of course I never had to use it.
My first ship was a cruiser, HMS Sussex. We used to have a flying boat called the Walrus. It was launched by catapult. You had to turn the aircraft to face the wind, then release the catapult. Even with the engine full on, the plane would dip before it regained height. To enable it to land, the ship would turn in a half-circle and spread oil on the surface of the sea to make it calm enough for the Walrus to land. Then a crane would pick up the plane and put it back on the ship. The main hazard for the Walrus was the possibility of rough seas. If this happened when we were close enough to base, the plane could return to dry land until the sea calmed down.
I went to South Africa aboard HMS Sussex. We were escorting a convoy of merchant ships. We left Greenock, Glasgow, and went out into the Atlantic to meet the convoy, which as I recall was coming from Liverpool. We stopped briefly at Brest and then sailed around the coast of Spain and went through the straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. We had to drop off some troops in northern Egypt. We went through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and then back out into the Mediterranean. Then back through Gibraltar and around the west coast of Africa. We called in at Freetown for one night. Eventually we reached South Africa, but we never sighted the enemy. We went on to Durban. I had relatives in South Africa, but there was no chance of meeting them. At Durban I boarded a troop ship for the journey to India. I disembarked at Bombay and took the train to Coimbatore and the Nilgiri Hills.
One of the cruisers I travelled on was HMS Superb. We nicknamed it “Super-B”. I went on the Superb on a short trip to Copenhagen and while I was there I went to the Tivoli Gardens.
End of article… [sadly the text ended here and we never got to learn of Rays time in India].