My Father’s War Record (Part One)

My father in the 1950sIt’s taken me ages to find Dad’s war record. I discovered it a few years ago for the first time when I was clearing out my Mum’s house, and I didn’t have the time or opportunity to look carefully at it at the time but I promised myself I would – in due course – take a long hard look at it and do some research as to what he did in the war. And then of course, I lost the record. However, a couple of days ago, I suddenly remembered that I had kept it with his war medals! So now I’ve found it again, and I’ve got the opportunity to give it the attention it deserves.

Leonard Poppe – my father – was born on 1st November 1923, which I knew, and it gives his trade as “Dairy Labourer”. Well I always thought he was brought up in the timber trade, so that’s very odd. It’s bizarre today to think there could be much work for a dairy labourer in East Ham. He volunteered to join the Royal Navy on 30th December 1941, so he would have been just 18 years and 2 months old. I remember being told that he deliberately volunteered for the Navy early, because he thought he would see less carnage than if he were called up for the Army.

Here are his “vital statistics”: Stature – 5 feet 10 inches. Chest – 34 ¼ inches. (That seems so slight in comparison to me! He endured a poor childhood – loving but no money – and that sounds a bit undernourished to me.) Hair – Brown; Eyes – Blue; Complexion – Fresh. For marks wounds and scars: “Scar forehead and left knee”. The period volunteered for is described as “Until the end of the period of the present emergency”. And his first engagement was on 9th February 1942 when he joined the “Duke”, Naval Training Establishment at Great Malvern. This went on to be the Royal Radar Establishment. He was given the rank of Stoker, 2nd Class. The training lasted till 16th March, so it was a five-week course.

HMS Howe He then went to the Victory, which was the main Royal Naval barracks in Portsmouth, from 17th March to 16th June 1942. I think this was probably for further training, in Radar work. Then it was on to HMS Howe, from 17th June 1942 to 11th November 1943, with a promotion to Stoker, 1st Class from 9th January 1943. I’m owing a lot of my information here to Mr Wikipedia, so I hope he’s right. Apparently the Howe was the last of five King George V-class battleships in the Royal Navy. I’m pleased to say the Howe apparently never saw any major ship-to-ship action, apart from one important event during his time, more of which later. She was launched on 9th April 1942, and commissioned into the Royal Navy on 29th August 1942.

More from Wikipedia: “She commenced sea trials in August 1942, but was made available for operations with the Home Fleet from November onwards. Her main duties were to provide cover for Arctic convoys and to intercept any major German warships attempting to enter the Atlantic. On 31 December, following the Battle of the Barents Sea, Howe was part of a multi-ship force that sailed to protect Convoy RA 51 and intercept, if possible, the German pocket battleship Lützow.

“In late February, Howe joined the escort screen of Convoy JW 53 to the Soviet Union, and the return Convoy RA 53. In May 1943, Howe was visited by Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill, then a few days later by King George VI.

“At the start of May, Howe was marked for deployment to the Mediterranean to support Allied landings. After taking on several 20 mm Oerlikon cannons, she departed from Rosyth for Gibraltar on 21 May, and arrived five days later. Howe was assigned to Force H, and operated in support of the landings at Sicily (Operation Husky) and Italy (Operation Slapstick) . After Force H was transferred to Algiers in early June, Howe was again visited by King George.

“During the landings on Sicily in July, Howe was positioned between Sicily and Sardinia to guard against any interference by the Italian fleet, and on 12 July joined HMS King George V to take part in diversionary bombardments of Trapani and the nearby islands of Favignana and Levanzo. After Husky, Howe returned to Algiers for maintenance. Whilst there, on 4 August an ammunition ship, SS Fort Le Montee caught fire and exploded, seriously damaging a nearby destroyer, HMS Arrow, and causing a substantial number of casualties. A party from Howe was sent to help in the dreadful task of gathering bodies and body parts.

“On 8 September, after the Italian surrender, Howe and King George V escorted a naval force to land the British 1st Airborne Division at the important port of Taranto on 9 September and, while en route, an Italian squadron was encountered sailing to Malta to surrender. On 14 September, Howe and King George V escorted surrendered Italian warships to Alexandria from Malta. On 1 October, Howe arrived at Algiers, and departed for Scapa Flow to resume duties with the Home Fleet. She was refitted for service in the Far East at Plymouth Dockyard between October 1943 and June 1944.”

Gosh, there’s a lot to take in here. I have a vague recollection of either Dad or Mum quoting Dad saying that he had been in the Arctic during the war, but I had no idea of what he might have been doing. To be honest, he never spoke about his war experience. I think, as a very young man, he saw an awful lot of horror and it scarred him, and he tried to spend the rest of his life blocking it out. Unlike my mother, whose ATS war was very deskbound and she loved it – it sounded rather like being in some Enid Blyton’s Girls’ Dormitory with midnight feasts and late night talks about handsome fellow officers. Mum at warThe photo on the left here shows Mum “at war”, she is the person furthest left in the picture, and this is dated 29th June 1945, so to be fair, the worst was over by now. Her worst war memories were the misery of spending Christmas sending out death notifications to families.

Italy StarAnyway, the activities of the Howe explain why Dad has the Italy Star. I never put two and two together to work out that he would have been involved with the Sicily and Italy landings.

I wonder if he was involved with the party who was sent to clear the HMS Arrow of body parts. I think he must have been, as I do know he did have at least one experience during the war where he came into contact with a lot of death and destruction and it affected him deeply. So this must have been the occasion. It’s very lame of me to comment “how awful for him” – but I can’t really think of any other way of putting it. Awful of course for the dead and bereaved too. I’m going back to Mr Wikipedia for some more information about what happened to the Arrow and the Fort Le Montee.

“Fort La Montee was in harbour at Algiers, preparing to sail for the invasion beaches on 4 August 1943. Before she could depart, a fire broke out aboard ship. Attempts were made to fight the blaze, whilst the harbour authorities, fearful of the risk of an explosion and damage to the other ships anchored there, ordered her to be towed out into deeper waters. Tugs were able to attach lines and bring her out into the bay. The British A-class destroyer HMS Arrow had been in the harbour at the time and came alongside to help with the firefighting. Efforts to control the fire were eventually unsuccessful, and it spread to the forward compartments and into the holds where the ammunition was stored. The entire forepart of the burning freighter then blew up, sending flaming debris raining down over a large distance. The Arrow was caught in the blast and she too caught fire, sustaining heavy damage and considerable casualties. She was subsequently declared a constructive total loss and never returned to service. The devastated Fort La Montee continued to burn. The aft section had to be sunk by gunfire from a Royal Navy submarine to prevent it blowing up. The remains of the forward section remained ablaze and burned for several days.”

I am absolutely sure that Dad witnessed this. I do remember descriptions from my childhood of a ship that had one half sunk whilst the other half was ablaze. I think this was the moment that scarred him. On reflection, looking back over his subsequent life, I’m sure this was his most significant life-changing experience. He would still have been only 19 years old and this was why he could never talk freely about his war.

On a lighter note, I don’t suppose a Stoker, even one promoted to 1st Class, would have met the King or Churchill, but it’s an amusing thought! I think if he had, he would have told me, as that would have been one of the brighter memories of the war.

Anyway we leave the story of the Howe here, and tomorrow I’ll post the second half of my research on Dad’s war record. If you have any other information about the ships he was posted on, or the events he may have seen, please let me know by leaving a comment, I’d be really interested to hear from you.