Harry’s Ramblings My Dad, the Unsung War Hero
by Harry Pope
It wasn’t until he had had died in 1997 that I came to appreciate just what my dad had done during WW2. He didn’t talk about it much, but when war was declared in 1939 he was 19, being called up the next year.
His father had been enlisted in 1917, giving the recruiting officer his religion as ‘Methusalite’, being one who wanted to live as long as possible. When dad’s turn came, as an Atheist he gave Church of Turkey, which went down on his service record, so he didn’t have to attend Sunday services. There was no-one of that denomination to conduct any services. Dad joined the Navy, and was a leading seaman by Spring of 1941. He was being trained as a radar operator, a new calling which suited him very well and one he never used in civilian life afterwards. Fyffes had a banana boat, launched in 1919 called the Patia, which was requisitioned by the War Office.
It was reasoned that this class of ship was suitable for one small single engine plane, with a launch pad for single use. The plan was to get as close as possible to enemy shipping such as warships, launch the plane, drop one bomb hopefully with sinking results, then the pilot was on his own. Maybe he would attempt to land on serene sea, and be picked up by the Patia, or if within ten miles of land then he could find his way back. The Japanese later on had a word for these pilots. Kamikaze.
The pilot had the rank of naval lieutenant, was usually fresh out of flying school, so the Patia in early April 1941 left Newcastle harbour on England’s north east coast on the early evening for the journey round Scotland to Belfast for the fitting of the launch apparatus. There were six newly trained radar operators on board, with nothing to do because they were surplus to operational duties. Three men to a cabin, they kept below for the next few hours, as they would only have got in the way. There was one 8inch gun midships, not much else in the way of defensive fire power. About 8pm they were spotted by an enemy airplane, which took one fly past and then disappeared. Men manned the gun immediately, but within a short space of time it was back, this time with a friend, and they proceeded to attack. Various shells struck home, the Patia was mortally wounded. All this time dad was below decks, knowing what was going on, but unable to do anything about it, he was a mere passenger.
Patia took an hour and a half to sink, the sea was pretty cold at that time of year, and they were off the coast of Northumberland, not that far away from Lindisfarne. The call came to abandon ship, some chose to ignore, believing that the ship would not go down, consequences unimaginable, but the rising water soon made their decision for them. He was one of the first up on deck, where he was greeted with a scene of destruction. Two of the bombs had hit, as well as the machine gun fire, with a loss of deck manpower of about thirty. The boats were launched, some were unusable because of enemy action, but all was disciplined, completely surprising because so many of the 180 on board were new to the Patia, or being transported for new duties.
The sinking brought rescue for some, but most had to endure many hours at sea before they landed on the coast. The first person that dad saw was a farmer, all the locals they encountered were well used to mariners being sunk over the years, so giving succour in this circumstance wasn’t quite the rarity you might think at first. He hadn’t been able to grab a lot in the rush to go up top, he kept his leather case with his most valued possessions, which included his navy record, which is still in our family archive, now in the keeping of his granddaughter. All these records are passed down to each generation.
Dad came ashore at first light, of the six new radar operators, three had perished. One third of the men on board Patia that night died, including the captain, either from the attack, or from being in the North Sea. The survivors were given one week’s compassionate leave, which was standard for those whose ship had gone down. Dad returned to Newcastle by train, then to Battersea in south London where he was reunited with his mother, aunt, and fiancée.
His medals are part of the archive, so is his naval record, which each man kept with him during his service. Dad was on four ships, was demobbed in very late 1945, after he was sent to Japan for the final assault. His ship was to co-ordinate a flotilla with radar information, meaning in Japanese waters he would certainly have come under severe enemy fire. They got as far as Malta before the two nuclear bombs were dropped, which he always reckoned saved his life.
What did dad think of Churchill? He referred to him as a warmonger, wanting the conflict to last as long as possible to extend his glory. He was especially resentful of being sent to almost certain death in a war which was essentially over.
And did he ever attend a Church of Turkey Sunday service? Certainly not.
Harry Pope has also written a book called Buried Secrets, about his time as a funeral director. It is full of amusing anecdotes, such as when he fell into the grave, reversed the limousine into a lamppost, and was in a Police convoy that never stopped between London and Gatwick. Amazon at £2.99 for the e-version, or £6.99 printed.