The wartime memories of George Alfred Partridge [Royal Navy]


In 1923, at the age of 15, George Alfred Partridge went to HMS Ganges, a shore establishment at Shotley in Essex, where he would learn signalling, as well as have a hard time, routinely climbing the 50-metre high mast at 6 a.m. every morning along with all the other boys and in all weathers. He also recounted how, at Christmas 1923, he travelled home to Lochinver for a few days’ leave. He had to walk in deep snow the fourteen miles from Inchnadamph railway station. After two years at Shotley he went to sea in battleships and took part in some pioneering trans-Atlantic communications, becoming something of an expert in his field, though still in his teens. Shortly after George died, a fellow ham sent Iris a tape recording of broadcast by a Russian radio station which mentioned his name as one of the pioneers of trans-Atlantic radio communication. During the 1920s, rather than do the very long journey up to Lochinver, he spent his shore leave with an uncle who lived in Catford. There he met Iris Williams who lived next door. They eventually married in 1935 after he returned from a two-year posting to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). George Alfred’s next posting was to Bermuda, one of the nicest postings you could have, and it was this that prompted his proposal of marriage and Iris’ acceptance, perhaps something she would later regret. He was determined to spare Iris the indignity of sailing to Bermuda on a troop ship where the passengers were referred to as “officers and their ladies, NCOs and their wives, other ranks and their women”. He chose instead to travel on a luxury cruise ship, the Reina del Pacifico. At that time, luxury liners had become the state of the art way to travel. There was a dodgy time after the Titanic had struck an iceberg and sunk in 1912 and the Lusitania had been sunk by a German submarine in 1915, both with huge loss of life, but ships had now got even larger and more luxurious and were clearly now a safe way to travel as well as enjoyable. George had to go to the Admiralty in Whitehall to get the permission of the navy’s Director of Sea Transport in order to let him do this, even though he had to pay for it. The next time he would visit the Admiralty was when his son, Andrew was working there as a member of the team serving the Government Efficiency Officer, Clive Priestley, whose office was the one with the balcony overlooking Horse-guard’s Parade, which is used by the royal family to watch the Queen’s Birthday Trooping the Colour. Andrew managed to borrow his boss’s office and the balcony on the Saturday before the Queen’s Birthday in 1983 and the family including George and Iris were there to watch the rehearsal with Prince Charles taking his mother’s place.

George Alfred Partridge had always been a trader of sorts, mainly buying and selling cigarettes to his mess-deck comrades in the Navy. Although a smoker himself at first, he was never an addict and soon gave up in favour of selling his “ration” (for many years, sailors had a subsidised allocation of cigarettes) along with more packs which he bought wholesale. When he was based at Chatham Dockyard, that is most of the time when he wasn’t at sea, he took a suitcase to a local wholesaler and collected enough packets to keep his mates going for a week or two. It was strictly illegal for him to bring cigarettes into the docks and he could be severely punished if caught. Fortunately, he got wind of a security swoop when he was bringing in a consignment so he hid his cigarettes in a coal yard outside the docks. At that time, sailing ships had been replaced by steamships which burned coal in large quantities, so the coal yard was to supply the ships. The coal yard was infested with wild cats who lived on the local rat population but some of them were sort of friendly and he enticed one close enough to catch it and put it in his suitcase. When asked by the security guard to open his case, George warned him that it contained a cat who might not be friendly. The guard persisted and was scratched by the animal as it exited the suitcase and fled. Why George was carrying a cat was never questioned but he was not stopped subsequently when he came in with a suitcase, this time full of cigarettes.

George Alfred and Iris spent their first two years together being able to enjoy the beaches and climate and a privileged way of life. They were able to rent an apartment in the Governor’s residence, Hamilton House, which was not allowed to officers because of the rowdy parties they held. For a Leading Seaman to have such a privilege attracted a lot of resentment. This period seems to have been a generally happy one, although Iris said this was when she first encountered George’s “tantrums”. Iris had a miscarriage during this time which she attributed to George’s behaviour. By the time they returned to Britain, George had decided to cut short his naval service and buy himself out. Although he was committed to 12 years’ service when he joined in 1923, that period did not begin until he was 18 years old in 1926, so he was due to serve until 1938. It proved an expensive decision, mainly because he forfeited his pension rights. He was not to know that he would be dragged back into the Navy in 1939 for another six years to fight a war, but he never was one to make considered and sensible decisions if they did not suit the needs of the moment. He would have much done better financially to have stood it out for another 18 months until his service term was completed. 

When George went back into the Navy in 1939 he was posted to Dover Castle where Admiral Ramsay in charge of the home fleet had his base. He still lived at home but cycled to Dover every day, which kept him fit.  He was there in May-June 1940 when the British Army was evacuated from Dunkirk. George was one of 16 radio operators in control of the entire operation at Dover. He went on duty on 27th May and was not stood down until 3rd June. He continued operating without sleep for a whole week. When at last he was able to step away from his radio and crash out he slept for 36 hours, including through an air raid. After another year at Dover, George was posted to the Mediterranean, sailing out as a Naval operator attached to a merchant ship, the Imperial Star. Iris and Andrew didn’t know at the time it would be over four years before they would see him again. Not far from Malta the Imperial Star was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. George was rescued but suffered a knee injury which troubled him later. He was taken to Malta where he would remain for about a year, living through the siege when rations were reduced to starvation levels and the island was bombed incessantly until Sir Keith Park of Battle of Britain fame organised an effective air defence system.

George was eventually transferred to Alexandria in Egypt, where, as a skilled mobile radio operator he became involved for a while with the Long Range Desert Group. We tend to think of warfare as opposing front lines facing each other but in the vastness of the desert the whole thing was a lot more fluid. You had to be mobile and what you did was directed more by a calculation of where your fuel would take you than other strategic concerns. You might randomly encounter the enemy and have to decide whether to try to take them by surprise or get away without being spotted. George was actually given a picture of the German General Rommel and a revolver. As a marksman he might get the chance to take a pot shot, but the LRDG did not make contact with the enemy when George was with them. As Rommel’s armies approached and Alexandria came under threat he was evacuated on HMS Medway, a large submarine depot ship. They had not got very far when Medway was struck by four torpedoes from a German submarine and sank in about two minutes. He was rescued but had swallowed a lot of water and subsequently caught pneumonia. He ended up back in hospital in Alexandria and was a guinea pig for treatment subsequently given to Churchill. When he recovered, he was posted to HMS Jarvis, a destroyer and flotilla leader on convoy protection. At Horley, there is a super model of an exactly similar sister ship, HMS Kelly, which George swapped for a radio set in the 1970s. Whilst in Alexandria George had bought a canary called Bill and a cage to put him in, which lived in his wireless office. Bill survived the war and came home in his cage, living until 1948. He used to fly loose in the house and would sit on your shoulder and nibble your ear as well as sing lustily. The cage, complete with “battle honours” inscribed on it at the time, now sits alongside the model of HMS Kelly at Horley. Evidently Bill had a habit if tweeting whenever he spotted an aircraft. This attracted George’s attention and he was able to inform the bridge so that the gun crews were at action stations before the German Stukas arrived to attack them. Jarvis’ gunners were both ready and accurate and the Stuka pilots knew this, so gave the Jarvis more space and released their bombs at a greater distance than their other targets and they all missed. The Jarvis’ sister ship Kelly was not so lucky and now lies the bottom of the Mediterranean near Crete. Lord Louis Mountbatten was the captain of the Kelly and he was rescued. As the father of Prince Phillip he was a prominent member of the royal family after the war and was murdered by the Irish Republican Army in 1980. Andrew remembers seeing his funeral in London. Another time, George was warned that the Germans planned to attack with radio guided bombs which could be launched from a safer distance. He bought a motor condenser in Alexandria and used this to create a spark which jammed the radio frequency and sent the bombs out of control into the sea. George says he was lined up for a medal for this achievement but his temper let him down once again and he loudly cursed the captain when his intercom to the bridge was open, so the medal was cancelled. After Jarvis was damaged supporting the invasion of Italy and Bill’s “battle honours” specifically mention Taranto among others, George was transferred to another destroyer, HMS Beaufort on similar duties and this ship as well as Jarvis survived the war.

BILL, HMS JERVIS and HMS BEAUFORT. Demobbed Class “A”, 6th Sept 1944

Service history of Bill the canary as recorded on his cage at the time.

Bombardment of Louara, Jan ’43

Cape Sparteven to Spantelleria, Tunisia, 1st – 2nd June, 10th June, ’43

Bola Raliway Bridge, Aug ’43

Lampedusa, Sicily, 12th June ’43

Malta Convoys, June ’43

Castelamarre, 10th Aug ’43

Vibo Valentia, 14th Aug ’43

Scale A U-boat hunts, Aug ’43

Taranto , 9th Sept ’43

Salerno, Sept ’43

Dodecanese and Aegian, 15th Oct – 13th Nov ’43

Anzio landings, 22nd – 23rd Jan ’44

There is also a 4-foot model of HMS Kelly, sister ship of HMS Jervis which shows what the ship looked like.

Shane Greer

Author: Shane Greer

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