Rob Jerrard's "Royal Navy and Maritime Book Reviews"

Books from Grub Street Publishing

Wings Over Suez

Edition: PB

Author:  Brian Cull with David Nicolle and Shlomo Aloni

ISBN: 1 904943 55 1

Publishers: Grub Street

Price £20

With 200 photos fully integrated

Publication Date: 2006

The only authoritative account of air operations during the Sinai and Suez wars of 1956.

Guiding the reader meticulously through the details of the air conflict between the Israelis and their Arab neighbours from the end of the 1948-49 war, the authors, each an expert in his own field then accurately reconstruct a blow-by-blow account of the Anglo-French air attacks on Egyptian airfields and other targets. With contributions by many of the pilots involved, the book is profusely illustrated with 200 Photographs.

Previous Reviews

'Records the dazzling flying of the Fleet Air Arm pilots and the professionalism of their carrier-based crews who played the lead role in winning a war in 5 days.'

The Western Mail

 'Fascinating experiences, vividly brought to life.'

Western Gazette

 'Vivid descriptions fly out of the pages, with a stunning selection of photographs.'


 'Well worth reading as one of the last gasps of Empire in which air power won the day, but politicians lost the war.'

Air Pictorial

REVIEW by John Shaw

Wings Over Suez is remarkable for the sheer volume of detailed information that it delivers whilst still giving an entertaining and interesting account of Middle East affairs post World War 2.  It is worth reading purely for its insight into the complex history of the region.  The personal accounts of combatants are used to convey the feelings of those who took part.  Extracts of a political and technical nature build up a picture of the situation from the many different sides involved.

The hierarchy, military strength and political position of the countries with an interest in the Middle East are presented as they were at the end of the 1948/49 Arab - Israeli war.  The subsequent lifting of the arms embargo imposed during that conflict paved the way for an arms race in the Middle East.  The Israeli Air Force is described recruiting and intensively training pilots, ground crew and paratroops whilst procuring fighters, bombers, transports and flying boats, with accounts of the many resulting accidents, as action intensified along the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line during 1951.  

The British Foreign Office remained Arab orientated especially toward Egypt and Jordan with Britain maintaining a large military presence in Cyprus, Jordan, the Canal Zone of Egypt and the Persian Gulf.  The French were still engaged in a savage colonial war against Arabs in Algeria and eventually Anglo-French colonial views forced Egypt, Syria and the Arabs to turn to the Soviets for Weaponry.  A vicious cycle of relations between the West and Arab world had evolved and alienation, fear, paranoia, ignorance and prejudice were rife.

 In 1956, serious clashes occurred in Sinai and the Gaza strip whilst Britain withdrew from Egypt in June.  When Britain and America withdrew financial help for the Aswan High Dam project, Egypt announced nationalisation of the Suez Canal and took control of it.  A Suez Canal conference was held in London attended by Britain, France, USA and USSR.  The secret 'Treaty of Sevres' between Britain, France and Israel planned to regain control of the Suez Canal and attack Egypt. This would involve the Israeli invasion of Sinai followed by  a fake ultimatum to both sides and Anglo-French military action against Egypt. The Sinai War is described with first-hand accounts of dog-fights, air attacks, naval and ground operations, focusing in detail on the battles for the Milta Pass and Rafah. The composition of Anglo-French military build-up in the Mediterranean is described including squadrons, aircraft and personnel.  The Ultimatums having been given and ignored, Operation Musketeer was launched, moving the Anglo-French armada off the Egyptian coast, with sorties, missions and interceptions involving the Royal Navy and Armee de l'air.  Egyptian Air Force bases and Army centres were priority targets for bombing raids flown by RAF bombers from Cyprus and Malta.

Many aircraft of the Egyptian Air Force were evacuated out of Egypt, Nasser's policy being to preserve pilots and aircraft for the long war against Israel.  Nearly all of those remaining were destroyed on the ground.  Military targets near Port Said and the Suez Canal were bombed in preparation for a ground assault.  Anglo-French commandos and paratroopers were deployed with landings at the Northern end of the Canal and a subsequent drive south towards Ismalia.

Despite British military action, Prime Minister Eden stated publicly:

“We are not at war with Egypt… this is just a police action”.

America monitored military build up in the Mediterranean, publicly voicing objections to military action insisting on United Nations action to restore Middle Eastern peace.  The US 6th Fleet was present in the area causing confusion for the British and French who intercepted their aircraft and ships during patrols.

In October 1956, revolution in Hungary distracted world attention with two weeks of savage fighting against the Soviets.  The Soviets applied pressure for British and French withdrawal from Egypt.  Premier Marshall Bulgarin suggested to President Eisenhower that they should co-operate, with the backing of a UN decision, to end aggression against Egypt and the Arab East.  The UN in turn demanded British, French, Israeli and Egyptian forces cease hostilities.

Britain, in growing economic crisis, appealed to Washington for backing from the International Monetary Fund in the form of a loan to halt the run on the pound.  An affirmative response was received, accompanied by a demand for a cease-fire and withdrawal from Egyptian soil.  Britain complied and the conflict was over.

The outcome is viewed internationally as a victory for Nasser, Egypt and the USA and a final defeat for the British Empire.  The subsequent political situation and Middle Eastern development is described including one incident involving the arrest of British military personnel, reminiscent of recent events in the Middle East.

John Shaw

Faster than the Sun - The Compelling Story of a Record-Breaking Test Pilot and WWII Navy Flyer

Edition: 2005

Author: Peter Twiss

ISBN: 1904943373

Publishers: Grub Street

Price £10.95

Publication Date: Expanded and Updated Edition 2005

Publisher's Title Information

The name of Peter Twiss first achieved national prominence in March 1956 when, as a test pilot, he gained the World Air Speed Record in the Fairey Delta 2, flying at a speed of 1132 mph over Chichester in Sussex.

Seventeen years earlier, in 1939, he had joined the Fleet Air Arm to serve his country in war, seeing action in Fulmars over the convoys to Malta in June 1942, in Seafires during the Operation Torch landings in NW Africa, and as a night fighter flying Mosquitoes. 

This new edition of Faster Than the Sun recounts his hitherto unpublished war experiences, based on his log book, and reproduces word for word the compelling story of his struggle to break the thousand miles per hour barrier, which has been described as one of the epic accounts of high-speed flight.


When this book arrived for review, I knew instantly the name of Peter Twiss and associated it with 1956 and the Fairey Delta 2 breaking the world speed record.  However, I did not know that he had been a Navy Flyer so I settled down to enjoy what turned out to be a good read.  Since this is a review for a Royal Navy website, I hope I may be forgiven for concentrating on that part or parts.

He began in a humble way as a Naval Airman Second Class in square-rig bell-bottoms as a HO (Hostilities Only).

His first operational posting was to Eastleigh, now known as Southampton Airport, which housed the Navy Fighter School.  He quickly moved to Yeovilton.  He was posted to the Orkneys and then to the CAM Ships, which he modestly described as "no action".  Next came 1941 and at twenty being posted to '804A' Squadron on HMS Ark Royal flying Fairy Fulmars.  It seems that on the day that Ark Royal sunk, he was airborne.  804A was then transferred to HMS Argus.  

Again, he modestly says in 1942 he was awarded the DFC and returned to the UK to reform into Seafire Squadron.  Then the Med and a Bar to the DFC.  The author left the Royal Navy as a Lieutenant Commander in 1946 to join Fairey for a flat salary of £1,000 a year and then you might say the story truly begins, because the book is mainly about the compelling story of a record-breaking Test Pilot with two chapters on the period as a WWII Royal Navy Flier.  The two chapters are not together as a more detailed one has been added later.

As well as the full story leading up to the successful attempt at 1132 mph, there are plenty of black and white photographs and an interesting diagram of the course, which on 10 March 1956 took him across Portsmouth and it is possible that I as a schoolboy heard the supersonic bangs and to those familiar with the area the timing points were Thorney Island, Chichester and Ford Naval Air Station.  

Why faster than the sun?  I will let the author explain.

'I had been the first man to take an aircraft off the ground and fly faster than the sun.  For that, incredible as it may seem is how it was.  You have to twist the fundamental laws of the solar system a bit to do it. The sun does not in fact move around the earth, as everybody knows.  It is the earth that moves around the sun. And it is not earth's orbit that makes the sun rise and set each day, but its rotation on its own axis.  But the earth does have a circumference of 24,000 miles, and, as it rotates once every twenty-four hours, the sun has an apparent speed of a thousand miles an hour. For a few seconds in the longest 10th of March history has ever known, I had flown at 1,132 miles per hour. The comparison may be a trifle shaky scientifically.  But it sounded fine to me.

About the last thing I can remember that night was thinking that, if you flew at that speed at the Equator, taking off at dawn, you would leave the rising sun behind and fly into night; or, if you preferred it the other way, you could catch up the setting sun, pick it up out of the horizon, and put it back in the sky where it belonged.  Even today, even in this new era where men measure speeds in terms of escape velocities, it is still a pretty exciting thought.'

All in all a very interesting book about a very exciting life of a boy who wanted to be a Game Warden, but finished up at Aldgate East as a Tea Taster for Brooke Bonds.  He certainly moved on to taste life in the full.

This book was originally published in 1963, this new edition includes certain incidents from the 1960s to the Millennium and an additional chapter in more detail about his wartime career.

Rob Jerrard

Furies & Fireflies Over Korea

The Story of the Men of the Fleet Air Arm, RAF & Commonwealth Who Defended South Korea 1950-1953

Author: Graham Thomas

ISBN: 1904010040

Publishers: Grubb Street

Price £17.99

Publication Date: 2004

I consider this is a book that could benefit all generations.  My generation, because we just missed being part of it but possibly had older brothers who were, those who were there on a Royal Naval ship, because it will give a wider picture of events and young people, possibly because they have never been told about the war in Korea and the Royal Navy's part in it.  

I joined the Royal Navy in 1956 and remember many of the ships mentioned in the narrative - the Aircraft Carriers HMS Glory, Theseus, Ocean and the Cruisers such as Belfast and Kenya and the Aircraft Carrier Triumph, which by the time I first arrived in the Far East was a repair ship in Singapore.

In this book the author provides what he calls a counterpart to the book 'With the Carriers in Korea' and he records the feelings and impressions of some of the surviving pilots who are representative of the men who flew and fought in that war.  

Chapter 1 is a very good overview to this three-year war and then the Pilots have their say.  The first is Lieutenant John Treacher - HMS Triumph.   Admiral Sir John Treacher KCB flew with 800 Squadron and has recently published his own book, 'Life at Full Throttle - From Wardroom to Boardroom', Pen & Sword 2004.  Sir John flew the Seafire, the last of the Spitfire breed, which had a very narrow undercarriage and was never a great deck aircraft.  

As the title suggests, this account is more about the Hawker Sea Fury and the Fairey Firefly and Appendix II could be read first to set the scene, as could the chronology followed by Chapter 1 'The Overview'.  

This war began on 25 June 1950 and I cannot recall what I was doing on that day.

One criticism I have is that the map on page 171 is very poor, some of the names being blurred.

Each chapter could be read independently.  After John Treacher comes 'First and Last Patrols of HMS Theseus' - Lieutenant Tommy Leece, 'HMS Glory Enters the Conflict' - Lieu Michael Darlington, 'HMS Ocean and the Irishman' - Lieutenant Paddy McKeown, 'When the MIGs Came Out to Play' - Lieutenant Peter Carmichael - HMS Ocean, followed by 'The Story of the Fireflies of Ocean and the Furies of Glory' also covered by the parts played by the RAF and the RAAF and 'Flying with the US Navy' by Lieutenant J Joe MacBrien a Canadian Navy Pilot on an exchange programme with the US Navy.  Mention is made of the USS Oriskany (CVA 34), which featured in the film 'The Bridges of Toko-Ri', 1955.   Set during the Korean War, a Navy fighter pilot must come to terms with with his own ambivalence towards the war and the fear of having to bomb a set of highly defended bridges.  Bombing bridges does seem to be something that occupied a lot of the time and this book includes some photographs.

I recall quite clearly these events, ships and aircraft as I knew them as a boy including MIGs and USAF Sabre jets and intend to read this book in more detail, which is proof of the interest which was stirred within me.

 I should also mention that there are some excellent black and white photographs (41), pride of place going to a Firefly FR1 from 827 Squadron aboard HMS Triumph.  

The Author says in his acknowledgement that Nick Cooke, Paddy McKeown, Tommy Leece, John Treacher, Alan Leahy, Pug Mather, Arthur Skinner, Ted Anson and Harry Hawksworth are the foundations upon which this book is built.  The adventure these men lived must be set against at least two factors.  Those not mentioned and all those who did not return and in the case of the Royal Navy, the ships companys' and support staff.  It always had to be remembered, 'Who packed your parachute today?' For those who didn't return - please read this book.

Rob Jerrard

Title: Changing Course - The Wartime Experiences of a Member of The Women's Royal Naval Service 1939-1945

Author: Roxanne Houston

ISBN: 1904943101

Publishers: Grubb Street

Price £17.99

Publication Date: 2005

Publisher's information on the book.

In June 1940 following the Dunkirk evacuations, Britain stood alone.  After witnessing the demoralised survivors first hand, Roxane Houston was determined to 'do her bit'' She volunteered to join the WRNS.

From a comfortable background with a sheltered upbringing, she now began a remarkable, and sometimes difficult journey, set against six years of war.  Starting in 1940 at the Royal Naval Air Station at St Merryn near Padstow, under seemingly constant attack from the Luftwaffe, via the RNAS at Machrihanish in Scotland, preparing for Combined Ops at Largs and Greenock in the run-up to D-Day, thence to Kandy and Colombo, in Ceylon, she did not return home until early 1946.

She met many varied characters, making some lifelong friends, experienced much excitement and great danger, happiness and personal tragedy, and received more than one proposal of marriage.

Now, in her twilight years, she revisits those momentous days which tested her and her contemporaries to the full.  Her autobiography is a highly personal, often poignant account of her time as a Wren, which not only gives a fascinating insight into service life, but also reflects the reshaping of her own outlook and attitudes.

Roxane Houston's sole ambition in September 1939 had been to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London to train as an opera singer, but the war intervened.  She completed three years of training there post-war, which led to a successful singing career spanning thirty years.  Her early musical autobiography Reflections of Harmony, was published in 1978.

She has also always had a great interest in the theatre, being a first cousin of the late Sir Terence Rattigan, who nurtured her interest by inviting her to take part in his teenage productions of his plays at home.  Since her retirement from singing she has continued to write both novels and plays on a wide range of interests.  She lives in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

Author's Note from the book.

Writing this book has meant a journey back in time - sixty-four years in fact - to a point beginning in late May 1940.  While working on a mobile canteen which visited outlying anti-aircraft sites some distance from my home in Cheshire, we went to help survivors from Dunkirk who were being deposited in the grounds of a big house.  The shocked countryside erupted from its comfortable slumber to rush to their aid with food, clothing and blankets, while we served strong, sweet tea, custard tarts, doughnuts and chocolate biscuits throughout that interminable day.  The men were in a wretched state, totally exhausted, but still showing their indomitable spirit.

That unforgettable experience led to my decision to join the WRNS for the duration, and by August 9th I was on my way to a Royal Naval Air Station in Cornwall, and to six years of a new life of changing places, values and outlook.

I never regretted that decision.  It seemed then as if I was living in a real time, quite unlike my former life, one which still stands out so clearly and vividly in my mind that its resurgence now has presented little difficulty.

Although I have dedicated my book to my four grandchildren, it is also a memorial to my young brother David, aged eighteen and a half, when, as a midshipman aboard the cruiser HMS Neptune, he was lost with the entire crew, except for one survivor, when it was sunk off the coast of Tripoli in December 1941.

(HMS Neptune, a Leander Class Cruiser built by Portsmouth Dockyard and manned by a New Zealand crew (Capt. R.C. O'Conner, R.N.) was sunk in the Central Mediterranean off Tripoli, western Libya by mines laid by an Italian cruiser force on the night of 19/20 June 1941. There was only one survivor from a crew of 767. The survivor was Leading Seaman Norman Walton. The Neptune Association has recently been formed to commemorate the loss of the ship and to remember the men who died.)


It is the privilege - often, indeed, the passion - of the elderly to revisit the past and to record their memories.  In "Changing Course" Roxane Houston, a professional singer who has already published an account of her musical career,  now goes further back to describe her wartime experience in the Women's Royal Naval Service.

All readers who have exceeded the traditional threescore years and ten hold a host of shared memories that will be reflected in a book such as this.  We relive the emotions and recall our own moments of terror, tiredness and excitement.  But for old and young alike a particular interest in Houston's story is the light it throws on a relatively unexplored area of the patchwork that made up the war effort.

Roxane's was a happy childhood: a loving family in a pleasant home with domestic staff boarding school education, followed in 1937 by six months in a finishing school in Switzerland. Here the girls were "to be turned out as young ladies armed with all the social and domestic graces thought necessary for our future stations in life".  But Roxane was not content to wait for dances, tennis clubs or hunt balls to provide her with a suitable husband; gifted with a beautiful singing voice she was to train at the Royal Academy of Music.

September 3rd, 1939 called a halt to her plans: the defining moment that changed so many lives was listening to "Neville Chamberlain's tired, disillusioned voice telling us we were at war with Germany".  Family life was disrupted: three domestic staff left to work in a nearby munitions factory and the eldest son's marriage was hastily brought forward before he went off to the Officer Cadet Training Unit at Aldershot.  Then came the evacuees; the billeting officer arrived with a mother and two lice-ridden children from the slums of Liverpool, introducing Roxane to a world of poverty she had not known to exist.

She felt increasingly restless and useless during the 'phoney war' and took on voluntary work in a mobile canteen bringing refreshment to soldiers in isolated anti-aircraft sites. In this capacity she was called out to meet lorry loads of soldiers arriving back after the evacuation from Dunkirk.  Her reaction to the sight of these shocked and exhausted men spurred Roxane to take a more active part in the war and without waiting to be called up she decided - without consulting her parents - to volunteer for the WRNS.

There follows an account of six years of military service, first as a rating in Cornwall. Then, having been trained as a cypher clerk, Roxane was commissioned and worked in Liverpool during the devastating air raids.  After an exhausting spell of duty she was posted to Scotland to continue decoding the constant stream of messages concerning the movements of shipping - a task made even more poignant when her well-loved younger brother, a midshipman, was lost with all hands when HMS Neptune was mined.

A move to another base in Scotland brought a different task: in a humble but vital capacity Roxane was involved in the logistical preparations for D-day.  In a memorable passage she describes being taken by a senior colleague late one evening just three days before the Normandy landings to view the result of their labours - hundreds of landing craft assembled in the River Clyde.

This was perhaps the high spot of Roxane's naval career, though a subsequent posting to Kandy, in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), brought interesting new experiences.  She was there when the war in the Far East came to an end, after which her colleagues began to ponder their futures without the purpose, danger and companionship of service life.  But for Roxane there were no doubts: she was no longer the fortune-favoured, pleasure-loving girl of the 1930s, but, matured and moulded by experience, she was now ready for a life devoted to singing.

Two irritations marred my otherwise wholehearted enjoyment of this book. The author seems to have two voices, fluctuating between apparent diary entries and semi-fictional narrative.  The 'diary' voice breaks up the narrative into chunks, each dated and located, as in "August 28th 1940 RNAS St Merryn".  There are no fewer than 27 such headings covering the six months of her stay in Cornwall - each an irritating interruption where a new paragraph would serve the same purpose.  Then when the 'diary entries' grow longer and become small narratives they include long passages of conversation.  Having come to accept the diary entries as factual, are we then to think that these conversations are reproduced verbatim, sixty years after they took place?

But these are minor quibbles.  The author has given us a fascinating glimpse of little-known history, and it is impossible not to empathise with her as we share her pleasures, pains and development into a thoughtful, resourceful and confident woman.

Pearl Norman

Review by Rob Jerrard

This is the second diary of a WRNS officer that I have read.  The first was actually called 'The Diary of a WREN' and was written by a member of the WRNS who became an Officer employed on cypher duties.  This latest book is also written in the form of a diary and its author was also promoted after 8 months and became a cypher Officer.  

We learn that Roxanne Houston had a very privileged and sheltered upbringing, with three domestic servants and a mother who had never cooked an egg in her life.  She calls it a 'comfortable background'.  Her mother appears to have been quite shocked by two evacuees from Liverpool with a mother who rarely washed.  

The author gives no indication of how her promotion came about.  We are just told, 'Great news! We have just learnt that some of us are to be promoted to third officer rank in the Spring'.  The author admits that upon entering the WRNS she encountered girls of a different class for the first time.  Before she was promoted she says that male ratings called them Officers' girls and never asked them out.  However, I would assume these ratings probably couldn't afford to take girls of their class out.  These girls obviously knew their place, they met officers off duty in mufti; to get around the rule that officers should not meet them socially.  It must have been a very interesting war for the author who served in HMS Vulture (RNAS St Merryn, Padstow, Cornwall), HMS Eaglet (Western Approaches Liverpool), HMS Landrail (RNAS Machrihanish Scotland), HMS Monck (Combined Ops), HMS Warren (Greenock, Scotland) and HMS Hathi (Candy, Ceylon).

On page 102, 28 May 1941, the author refers to 14 WRNS cypher officers who were lost when the ship they were in was torpedoed en-route to Gibraltar.  She refers to a third officer called Isobel who was one of those lost.  There was a third officer called Isabel Mary Milne Holme, who was one of the 'The Aguila WRENS' which consisted of 1 second officer, 8 third officers and 12 chief wrens (Telegraphists).  If this is the same incident the SS Aguila left Liverpool on 12 August 1941 in convoy 0G71, according to 'Nightmare Convoy' by Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam published in 1978.  She was torpedoed on the 19th and went down in 90 seconds with a total death toll of 145, including all WRNS officers, ratings and one nursing sister.  On 18th June 1952 the 'Aguila Wrens Memorial Fund' presented a motor lifeboat to the RNLI, she was called 'Aguila Wren'.

If this is the same incident, there seems to be a discrepancy with numbers and the date.  

This is an interesting book presumably written from diaries and it stands as a record of what it was like to serve in the WRNS in WW2.  We should be thankful that people of this generation are writing down their memoirs.  

The Royal Navy has changed now of course since the 14th January 1991 when female members of the RN first went to sea in HMS Brilliant.  

During my service there were still WRNS but they didn't serve in ships.  When I trained in Radar at HMS Dryad I came across many there.   I only came into close contact (if this is the correct way of expressing it) with a WRNS officer twice.  Once as a boy seaman when one decided my fate at an interview to see whether I should be Gunnery, TAS or Radar, and the second time when I was Barge Coxswain to the Flag Officer Submarines.  A third officer was PA to the Admiral.  During a period when the flag lieutenant was away she became my boss and I had to report to her daily.

Like Roxanne, she pulled the same stunt (page 155).  When the Admiral was away she persuaded me (ordered me) to take her for a trip around the harbour in his barge and insisted at having a go at steering, like Roxanne, she must have been 'seized with an overpowering longing to steer our little boat myself'.  What is it with you WRNS officers, do you have a thing about boats?  

I note with interest the author's mother was a McGregor, my name is Rob Roy and on the day I was born she learnt of the confirmation of her promotion to third officer.  

All in all an interesting and enjoyable book from which we can learn something of WRNS Officers in WW2.  

Rob Jerrard

The Daily Telegraph Book of Naval Obituaries

Edition: 1st

Author: David Twiston Davies

ISBN: 1904010911

Publishers: Grub Street Publishers

Price £17.99 RRP UK

Publication Date: 2004

The cover of the book tells us that, “This book is the companion to two earlier volumes celebrating the soldiers and airmen. It contains over one hundred biographies which were published in The Daily Telegraph during the past eighteen years, but have never before appeared in book form.  Within these pages appear men of the Navy, Marines and Fleet Air Arm, as well as the merchant fleet.  They include such heroes as the Atlantic convoy commander Peter Gretton and the submariner Godfrey Place, VC; the yachtsman and U-boat hunter Stan Darling as well as the corvette commander Charles Cuthbertson, model for the captain in The Cruel Sea. Bill Sparks, the cockleshell hero, and Derek Pounds, who fought behind the lines in Korea, represent the pluck of the Marines while "Hooch" Williamson, who led the attack on Taranto, and Ken Pattison, who had the best claim to have sunk the Bismarck, demonstrate all the dash of the FAA.

There are others who played less dramatic yet equally vital roles, or made their mark in distinctly unconventional ways.  Terry Lewin steadied the Cabinet's resolution as Chief of the Defence Staff during the Falklands War; Richard Trowbridge rose from boy seaman to captain of the Royal Yacht Britannia; Peter Samborne carried out the trials of Britain's first nuclear submarine, for which he was paid the princely sum of £1. Ginger Le Breton took part in the Invergordon mutiny of 1931 yet survived to be commissioned; Dicky Courage was the Navy's ebullient champion jockey and Ninian Scott-Elliott served on the China station and was sunk at Tobruk before retiring with his bagpipes to run a plantation on a tropical island.

Written with wit, humour and insight, here are tales of the derring-do, skilled seamanship and steady judgement which characterise the Senior Service.”

Over the years that I have run the Royal Naval Web Site at I have taken an interest in Naval Obituaries which have been published in 'The Times', during that time I have spotted names that I recall as having either served with, known, or heard of, the names of Officers frequently crop up in the HMS St Vincent Journal as Boy/Junior seamen recall there past.

It is pleasing to see Vice Admiral Sir John Hayes is in the book, he was Captain of HMS St Vincent in November 1956 when as a 15 year old I joined the Royal Navy, his obituary also appeared in The Times on September 16th 1998, he died September 7th 1998.

Another one of interest to me and St Vincent boys of my period is, that of the second in command at St Vincent when I joined,


Vice-Admiral Sir Ernle Pope, KCB, Commander Allied Naval Forces Southern Europe, 1974-76, died on May 21 aged 76. He was born on May 22, 1921.

While serving as a young lieutenant in the destroyer Lively, Ernle Pope suffered the rare distinction of being sunk twice in one day. In May 1942 the turning point of the hard-fought Mediterranean campaign was still a year away and the Royal Navy's grim determination not to lose Malta - and to interdict supplies for the Axis armies in North Africa - was leading to many losses. Intelligence of a convoy bound for Benghazi prompted sorties by the destroyers Jervis, Jackal, Kipling and Lively from Alexandria.

On May 11 these ships were attacked by German bombers from the expert Fliegerkorps II, sinking the Lively. At sunset, a heavy attack by another squadron sank the Kipling, which had rescued many survivors from Lively, as well as badly damaging the Jackal. Next morning, Jackal had to be abandoned and sunk by a torpedo from Jervis, which retired carrying the 650 survivors.

The son of a naval officer, John Ernle Pope entered the Royal Navy at Dartmouth in 1935.

It was his talent for driving and motivating people which led to his next two successful tours, first as the second-in-command of the boys' training establishment HMS St Vincent .

Still on HMS St Vincent, the Obituary of Rear Admiral Sir Richard John Trowbridge is included in the book - he was the Association's Vice President.  A brief obituary appeared in the Association's Journal, Volume 7 June 2003, No. 2.

TROWBRIDGE.- Rear Admiral RICHARD JOHN (TOM). KCVO, Died peacefully on 4th May 2003, aged 83, of lung cancer (asbestosis). Beloved husband of Anne, loving father of Stephen and Martin and proud grandfather. Funeral private.

A Memorial Service will be held at the Chapel of the Savoy, Savoy Hill, London, WC2 on Thursday. 12th June 2003 at 12 noon. Donations, if desired, to King George V Fund for Sailors. Daily Telegraph 09.05.2003.

Obituary Rear Admiral Sir Richard John Trowbridge KCVO January 21st 1920 - May 4th 2003 Joined St Vincent 1937 and 1940, Vice President of the Association.

"It is with sadness that I have to report the Crossing the Bar of Admiral Sir Richard Trowbridge.  Sir Richard had been fighting illness for a very long time.  Having been born into a farming family he decided at 15 years of age that he wanted to join the Royal Navy, which he did and was trained at HMS St Vincent a Boys Training Establishment at Gosport Hampshire.  He was commissioned in 1940 and served at sea throughout Second World War.  After the war he went on to Command HMS Carysfort, was second in Command of HMS Bermuda.  After commanding the Fishery Protection Squadron from 1962 - 1964 he went on to Command HMS Hampshire (Flagship of the Western Fleet).  In 1970 Rear Admiral Trowbridge was appointed Flag Officer Royal Yachts where he served for 5 years. In 1980 Rear Admiral Trowbridge agreed to take the post of Governor of Western Australia. Vice President of the HMS St Vincent Association who attended meetings when his illness allowed. He is survived by his wife Lady Anne Trowbridge and their two Sons. Rear Admiral Sir Richard will be sorely missed. Malcolm Smith. Chairman."

Two more I have from The Times (not in the book) are, Vice Admiral Sir Peter Compston, died August 20th 2002, he was Captain of HMS Victorious in 1964 when I served in the ship, and a name that has appeared from time to time in the St Vincent Journal is Vice-Admiral Jack Scatchard, his obituary was in The Telegraph July 5th 2001, albeit he is not in the book.

In the book there are 107 obituaries that appeared in The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph between 1987 and 2004, whenever you served in the Royal Navy I am sure there will be a few names that you will recall, for me there is one other name that does appear, Marine Bill Sparks, one day as a young police constable in the City of London Police I was having a cup of tea at Aldgate Bus Station in London and chatting to a bus inspector, a little later one of the other inspectors told me who he was, it was Bill Sparks, I had just come out of the Navy and part of our conversation had been that I had qualified as a diver, Bill had shown a keen interest but had never said a word about who he was.  

Rob Jerrard

Second Review

As a shipwreck historian, I have often encountered a number of the names contained within this book. As an occasional author of a "letter to the Editor," I have also spoken with the David Twiston Davies on more than one occasion when he was Letters Editor for the Daily Telegraph. Somehow, a combination of these two factors has brought out the very best (for me at least) in this series of books. Perhaps it's just that Naval History is my subject and this book is full of those who made it.

Obituaries are, by their very nature, a brief means of celebrating in words the lives of those who, for whatever reason, are deemed important enough to be included. Some enjoyed long and fruitful lives, others not. Some, such as Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin of Greenwich (probably one of the greatest men of our time), achieved the highest possible office and rank. Others, such as Bill Sparks DSM (last of the Cockleshell heroes), did not. In this book they are given equal billing and quite rightly so.

Amongst "some" of the other names which sprang from the page as I scanned the contents list were; Rear Admiral Godfrey Place VC (commander of X-Craft 7; a miniature submarine in which he made a successful attack on the 41,000 ton German battleship Tirpitz in Kaafjord in 1943, an attack from which the ship never recovered) and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Flotillenadmiral Otto Kretschmer, who, as commander of U-99 (the Golden Horseshoe) went on to become the most successful U-Boat Ace of World War Two.

I was aware that Kretschmer was captured and became a POW in Ontario (during which time he was even promoted because of the intelligence he was sending back to Germany!). I did not know however, that he joined the post-war German Navy (Bundesmarine) in which he went on to complete a full career eventually reaching the rank of Flotillenadmiral which equates to our Commodore. A small number of American and Russian personalities are also included. It was most interesting to see which had been of sufficient interest to a British newspaper.

Altogether, 106 obituaries from the past 20 years as published in the Daily Telegraph. If you missed any of them first time around, then this is your chance to find them again. One thing is for certain though, you cannot possibly avoid reading the next one - and then the next.

There are several annoying typographical errors (mostly missing spaces between two words) but these will not spoil your enjoyment of an otherwise outstanding book.


Lie In The Dark and Listen

The Remarkable Exploits of a WWII Bomber Pilot and Great Escaper

Author: Wing Commander Ken Rees with Karen Arrandale

ISBN: 1904010776

Publishers: Grub Street

Price £17.99 RRP UK

Publication Date:  24 March To Coincide With The 60th Anniversary Of The Great Escape, written By One Who Was There.

Life is pretty dull for Ken Rees these days. At seventeen he craved danger and excitement: fast planes and cars; rugby, speed and women.  Then war came and by the age of twenty-one he had already trained to be a pilot officer; flown fifty-six hair-raising bomber missions by night over Germany, taken part in the siege of Malta; got married, been shot down into a remote Norwegian lake: been captured, questioned by the Gestapo, then sent to Stalag Luft III; where he participated in and survived the Great Escape and terrible forced march to Bremen.

Now he lives relatively peacefully in Anglesey and in finding time to research and write his memoirs with Karen Arrandale, has vividly recreated what it was like to be in charge of an air crew at such a tender age with responsibility for a large and expensive aircraft going 300 miles behind enemy lines, at the same time avoiding flak and enemy fighters and witnessing other comrades being shot down out of the sky.  Moreover, he writes movingly about his experiences after capture in the prisoner of war camp, about the build-up to the Escape and the aftermath of it.

Ken's story has it all, excitement, accuracy, pace and drama, and he describes events which have become legendary as the former Kriegies - his friends and colleagues - pass out of this world.

Wing Commander Ken Rees is one of the few remaining Great Escapers and has been interviewed extensively for newspapers, radio and television, not least during his appearances on programmes like `Behind the Wire'.

He is an excellent raconteur with many contacts in the RAF, POW groups and the ruby world, having in the past captained London Welsh and trialled for Wales.

From the Introduction

“Today in an age when the mere fact of being in a theatre of hostility (not necessarily hostilities) generates the media's definition of "hero", I can still only think of the Great Escape as an event in which men did their duty. That, I think, is sufficient, and if others will think of all of us, those who were murdered and those who survived, in such a manner, I believe we would all be content.”

Tony Bethell

When I was twenty-one I had already flown fifty-six missions, got married, been shot down into a remote Norwegian lake, questioned by the Gestapo and sent to Stalag Luft 111, where I took part in what became known as The Great Escape.

If the war hadn't intervened, instead of the stuff of films I suppose my life could have been the stuff of television.  Are You Being Served say, rather than 'The Great Escape'.  My father had me down for a nice, steady career at Gorringe's, then one of the smartest stores in London and the ultimate in stuffy respectability, where the most exciting event on offer was a deadpan discussion (by one's superiors, of course) of the woven texture to be found in ladies' foundation garments. Well, I escaped Gorringe's, lied about my age and joined the RAF instead.  At seventeen I craved danger and excitement; I liked fast planes and cars, rugby, speed and women, not necessarily in that order, and like many of my generation I thought myself lucky to get caught up in a wartime which provided both.

It is difficult to convey to a generation not brought up to it the intensity of life back then and the extremes we lived through.  On the one hand we were moving away from the rigid social systems of our parents and grandparents, but there were still more rules around to break and bend.  Any schoolboy can tell you how much fun it is and how satisfying it can be breaking rules which are primarily designed to keep you in your place.   Having said that, I must also draw attention to the fact that this same naughty schoolboy climbing up the drainpipe of a night to some girl's bedroom window, might the next day be in charge of an aircrew, with responsibility for a large and expensive aircraft, six men on board, and going three hundred miles behind enemy lines where he was expected to avoid the enemy flak and fighter aircraft, drop his bombs accurately and then get his crew safely back home.  He might have to do this and watch other planes being shot down, and watch men who were his friends being incinerated alive but still stick to his orders.  All this, when most of us were barely out of our teens.  Rules, we all knew, were different from orders.  Rules you could break and have a good laugh about it; orders you had to obey, no question.

I want to tell my own story, my own part in these large events which are rapidly passing into legend as we former kriegies gradually move out of this world. It's difficult to recapture, much less convey to non-kriegies what it meant to us.  Prince Philip, though, summed it up pretty well at a recent dinner for ex-POWs:

“I do not believe that anyone who has not experienced it can understand what life as a Kriegie must have been like.  It is really a secret society or, rather, a society which shares a secret which very few others can hope to penetrate.  The common bond which draws these men together is composed of many strands.  The death casualties in Bomber Command far outstretched those of any other arm of the services.  So that the main strand of the bond is gratitude for continuing life.  The others are the sharing of the formidable dangers, and the realization of the gifts of freedom and liberty. These are among the secrets which are shared by men who, in some cases for many years, existed in the closest proximity under unique conditions.”

REVIEW by Frank Spilsbury DFC

A very good read.  Ken Rees takes us from his youthful and enthusiastic days, volunteering for aircrew - and remember all aircrew were volunteers - to his successful training as a pilot, his operational sorties in home-based Bomber Command and overseas, and being shot down on a mine-laying operation.  Ken then takes us through his "Kriegie" days and we suffer with him, trials and humilities as a POW.  Then, the tunnels of Stalag Luft III and the planning of the war's Great Escape.  Ken's luck held and he is saved from leaving the tunnel by a “Goon's” call to nature.  

Fifty officers of the RAF were rounded up and shot by orders from Hitler and the Gestapo.  

But terrible days are still to come as we join Ken and his fellow POWs on the forced marches, as the Germans forced the “Kriegies” to keep ahead of the advancing and victorious Allied and Russian armies.

The book, well written, could so easily be called “What a War” for few started so young and packed into their war lives so much and suffered so much.  

Ken finishes as he started, flying again in the RAF.  He has a most incredible story to tell and he tells it well.

FA Spilsbury DFC

Royal Navy & Maritime Book Reviews 2007 Copyright Rob Jerrard