This week’s photograph is a truly splendid press photograph taken on board a British cruiser on convoy work:Press photographs are always a nice addition to the collection because the quality of the composition and subject matter is normally far higher than personal snaps and they usually have a detailed description on the back. In this case the back of the photograph reads:
Dramatic Air Attack,
A series of photos secured by our own staff photographer in a fight against a convoy in the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic. The convoy and its escort were attacked by U-boats and Focker-Wolfe (sic) 4 engined Courier Bombers. After a fight of some hours, both bombers and U-boats were driven off without loss. These scenes were secured on board a cruiser while in action.
Photo shows. The ship’s torpedo officer wearing anti-bomb protecting gear gives a running commentary of enemy aircraft movements to ship’s company below decks.
Allowing for press inaccuracies, my guess is that the aircraft referred to were FW2000 Condor long range bombers:These were frequently used for long range maritime bombing. The picture itself is very interesting, despite some damage. The officer in the centre is a lieutenant, as shown by the painted rank insignia on his helmet:He is wearing white cotton anti-flash gear over his uniform as one would expect in battle, with a hood:And gloves:Around his waist he has an inflatable life jacket, here a rarer white version (more commonly the RN used blue examples of the life jacket):Note also his gas mask bag slung on his hip. In his hand is a large microphone into which he is giving his commentary:He is stnding on the open bridge of the cruiser, we can clearly see a row of voice pipes allowing the bridge to speak to other parts of the ships:Other ships of the convoy can be seen in the background:Thomas Kay describes an attack on a convoy he was part of by Condor bombers:
Towards the end of February 1942 we sailed as part of a large convoy, with a warship escort which included for a period the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson.
I first saw action in the Bay of Biscay when two FW 220 (Condor) aircraft bombed the convoy. The Condors stayed circling most of the day until one of our planes, a Catalina Flying boat, came on the scene. After a brief dogfight, the ‘Cat’ chased the Condors off. One ship was damaged but fortunately most of the bombs missed as the Condors had to bomb from a great height because the anti-aircraft fire from our escorts was so heavy.
It is odd to think that despite many advances in the understanding of the human body and illness in hot climates, even as late as World War Two spine pads were considered essential in the tropics. The spine pad had been introduced in the late nineteenth century on the spurious thought that by protecting the vulnerable spine, the effects of sun stroke could be reduced. For a fuller history on this garment please take a look at this excellent post on ‘Military Sun Helmets’ here. It was not just the army which used the spine pad, the Royal Navy included it on their rating’s ‘tropical singlet’ which was an oval necked and heavy garment issued to sailors in the tropics. This was unpopular and sailors frequently wore the standard white cotton flannel instead as it was more comfortable. The Admiralty finally bowed to the inevitable and replaced the tropical singlet with a new shirt, based off the standard flannel in 1938:From the front this garment looks identical to the standard cotton flannel (as indeed it is), with the same blue edged square neck hole:However the rear shows that it has been ‘tropicalised’ by the addition of a spine pad:The spine pad here is a separate shaped piece of cotton sewn to the back of the flannel, rather than a removable piece of quilted cloth common on army shirts:The remarkable thing is that this was ever introduced at all, as early as June 1937 the Admiralty Medical Director had reported, ‘the spine pad is completely useless as an extra protection against the sun’s rays, and only adds to the cost and weight of the article; it should be abolished’. The response from the Director of Victualling replied, ‘there appears to be a considerable predilection for the spine pad amongst personnel of the fleet.’ The spine pad remained and was carried forward!
This tropical flannel was manufactured by B.W. & Co Ltd:Sadly I have been unable to ascertain which company used these initials, but having seen a number of other garment with the same initials they seem to have been contracted by the Admiralty to manufacture rating’s uniforms.
This particular garment was issued to a man named ‘D Lyth’ and his name is stamped into the inside at the back:Sadly this particular tropical flannel has suffered over the year and has been stored in a metal trunk resulting in extensive rust spots.
In this modern world of instant communications it is easy to forget how hard it once was to communicate with people in other parts of the world, even as recently as thirty years ago. Families who had loved ones on board ship always found it hard to get a message quickly to those serving. Letters were reliable, but could take several weeks to arrive and satellite telephone calls were in their infancy. The Royal Navy recognised this problem and set up a system to allow families to get a message to crewman easily in an emergency. Those who had loved ones in the Royal Navy were issued with a yellow card instructing them what to do. The front of this card had a space for the serviceman’s details to be recorded before they left so the family member would have the relevant information to hand:Inside the card tells family members who to contact to get a message to their loved ones and the different options available to them:
The back of the card has a map of the UK with different districts marked so the correct naval base can be chosen to make enquiries:This card dates from 1986, and coincidentally my father was working in HMS Nelson just five years later when the Gulf War broke out running the office that dealt with family enquiries. Most of these were fairly routine, but he did recall one humorous incident when an anxious mother rang up desperately worried her son might be deployed to the gulf. My father reassured her that as her son was on the Antarctic Patrol Ship it was highly unlikely his ship would be sent to the desert!