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A real can of worms

 

2-Implacable 1945

HMS Implacable entering Sydney Harbour, December 1945

By Brian Hawkins     –     In memory of Royal Marine Arthur Lasson, 1922- 2008

Over the last 60 years or more I’ve had two encounters with the aircraft carrier HMS Implacable. The first was in 1953 when serving in her sister ship HMS Indefatigable. These two then non-operational aircraft carriers made up the training squadron to cope at the time with the influx of National Service ratings to the Royal Navy. The vessels for most of the time were moored in Weymouth Bay, within easy reach of Portland Harbour and the shore base HMS Osprey, besides being conveniently placed to Weymouth. I well remember those grey autumn mornings when I, as a fender boy, part of a motor boats crew, helped to pick up those officers who choose to live in Weymouth on “rations ashore”.

But our days moored in Weymouth Bay were numbered. The forenoons of dashing about in Indefatigable’s motor boats collecting mail from the service post office at Portland, and enjoying cream doughnuts and milky coffee in the Salvation Army canteen there, soon came to a close. I must say I wasn’t sorry not to have to scale up the swinging  Jacobs Ladder to the boom on these return trips to secure the craft, with Indefatigable towering above me. The vessel still bearing the scars of war, a poignant reminder of 8 years before, when Indefatigable suffered a devastating attack by a Kamikaze targeting her island’s superstructure.

Subsequently we were off, in company with Implacable, on a NATO exercise heading south to the Bay of Biscay. If my memory serves me correctly we were acting as a convoy to be the target of mock attacks from an invisible enemy back in those days of the cold war. I assume these seamanship exercises were intentionally planned for the Autumn Equinox, with it’s predictably adverse weather conditions.

It was during the early part of what turned out to be a rough passage in a heavy sea that a rating aboard Implacable was swept off a forward gun sponson, and swept back on-board by way of the quarterdeck, in a bewildered state, to enjoy a remarkable recovery!

Once Lisbon was within sight on our port beam through a hazy horizon we changed course and headed northwards. I assumed the exercise was over. Our next destination was to be the Scilly Isles, where we understood all kinds of picnics and excursions had been arranged and were waiting for Indefatigable’s ships company to enjoy. An MFV from Plymouth was to rendezvous with us off St. Mary’s to be our liberty boat. After a choppy return voyage our period at anchor off St. Mary’s was short lived. In just a matter of hours a gale blew up and we were on a lee shore. Not wanting to follow the fate of the Association, Cloudesley Shovell’s flagship two centuries before, Indefatigable made a hasty retreat to deeper safer waters to ride out the storm.

After the exercise I never saw our sister ship Implacable again. Shortly following that Scilly Isles adventure our entry of National Service ratings left on draft, in my case to RNB Chatham and subsequently to join the cruiser HMS Superb.

1-Implacable-Lasson

Royal Marine Arthur Lasson

Although I was never to see Implacable again my next encounter with her, nearly 60 years later, was through the written word. This came about when a retired colleague, in my civilian career, contacted me. Arthur Lasson, my former colleague was some years senior to me. He’d served during the World War II as a Royal Marine, for part of his time in Implacable.

In September 1945, at the conclusion of the war in the Far East, Implacable was in Sydney. With hostilities over the ship’s air wing disembarked, following which Implacable took on board 2000 camp beds and a large quantity of blankets. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Implacable “as about to be going for the first time on a mission of mercy rather than one of destruction”. Thus prepared, she was then under sailing orders to make passage to Manilla to repatriate 2000 allied ex-prisoners-of-war who’d been held in Japanese Prison Camps. With the ex-POW’s aboard, Implacable sailed, crossing the Pacific via Pearl Harbour, to Vancouver, a voyage of some 23 days.

Whilst researching for this article I referred to recollections of Implacable’s Captain of the time, Captain C.C.Hughes-Hallett.C.B.E. I’d hoped for some account of the repatriation of the allied prisoners. The only reference I could find in his memoirs to this episode in his career was of the concern he had for the five British nursing sisters and 16 V.A.D’s they had to embark to look after the medical requirements of the prisoners. He was concerned in particular whilst Implacable was briefly at Pearl Harbour. The nursing sisters and the V.A.D’s were invited ashore by American officers. Captain Hughes-Hallett relates with some relief “that none of them missed the ship when we sailed the next day”.

What prompted ex-Royal Marine Lasson to contact me was to relate what he’d witnessed in Vancouver in October 1945.

After arriving in Canada the prisoners disembarked and then crossed Canada by train to the east coast to join passenger liners to sail across the Atlantic to Europe.

4-Implacable Vancouver

Canadian visitors swarm aboard HMS Implacable in Vancouver, October 1945

After this Implacable’s log records that the ship was open to the public from 1400hrs to 1800hrs. It was the events that took place during that four hour period on the 14th October that I later learnt about and which I found hard to believe.

Implacable was due to sail shortly after Sunday 14th October, back across the Pacific to Hong Kong. This however was delayed until the 18th October, and it was the reason for this delay that had stuck firmly in the mind of Marine Lasson and, knowing my interest in maritime topics, had prompted him to contact me.

The rumour that circulated on the mess decks all those years ago was that one of a pair of the ships chronometers had been damaged during the period the ship had been open to the public. Implacable would not be able to sail relying only on a single chronometer for her navigation. Perhaps this was merely a “mess deck buzz”. But Lasson thought it a good story which I might like to pursue. I didn’t know that Lasson, now in his 84th year, was terminally ill. I promised that as soon as I was able I’d search Implacable’s log at the National Archives at Kew and see what I could discover.

This I did and sure enough read that on that particular October Sunday in 1945 the vessel had been opened to visitors and, apart from a Hamilton Deck Watch which was recorded as missing or lost, there were no other entries relating to that day. But strangely this entry concerning the deck watch in the log had been neatly ruled through and the alteration initialled by the Navigation officer.

Sadly I was never able to on pass on the little I had learnt about Implacable’s visit to Vancouver, as Arthur Lasson had died.This could easily have been the end of my search to discover what actually happened aboard Implacable on that day over 65 years ago.

Several months later some long established friends who’d emigrated to British Columbia in the late 1950’s were over in Europe on an extended autumn vacation. We agreed to meet up in Devon and over a long lunch we reminisced. The fact that they lived just outside Vancouver prompted me to mention the Implacable’s time in Vancouver as one of my recent interests.

I mentioned how I’d like to be able to delve into the archives of British Columbian newspapers of October 1945.My friends suggested that I should contact Jim Hume a freelance journalist, a veteran and regular contributor to the newspaper the Times Columnist. His particular interest was recollections of World War II.

Not long afterwards I contacted Jim Hume and related my story, explaining how I was unable to substantiate and add detail to the memories of my deceased colleague who had served in Implacable at the time of her visit to Vancouver in October 1945. Was the reason given for her delayed departure just “a mess deck buzz”? I didn’t really expect any detailed reply, but much to my surprise within a couple of weeks came by email the text of an article he had just recently written, prompted by my contacting him, which had been published in the Times Columnist under the headline of “UGLY THIEVING CROWD LOOTED BRITISH WARSHIP.”

Since my email to him Jim Hume had been trawling the newspaper archives and, from the material he had uncovered, had written the most graphic description of Implacable’s visit.

The Province newspaper, on Monday 15th October 1945, reported that “a crowd of 50,000 had jammed the pier but only 20,000 had made it on-board!” and “once aboard Implacable many fainted in the crowded corridors, 350 visitors received treatment within the ship and 18 visitors were taken to hospital”. The report continued, ” anything moveable was stolen even live shells from the Bofor guns, rubber eye pieces from anti aircraft guns, rifles, cutlery, tea cups and even an officer’s cabin was raided stealing the occupants underwear, even his socks! Two of the four Hamilton Deck Watches were recovered and a third, also stolen, was discovered. But the location of the fourth remains a mystery!” The Province newspaper reported that the main chronometer was rendered unserviceable having been vandalised by souvenir hunting visitors. So my late colleague’s “mess deck buzz” had been based on fact and this maybe accounted for Implacable’s delayed departure for Hong Kong.

3-ImplacableHK

Sailing back across the Pacific, HMS Implacable stopped in Hong Kong, November 1945

The only mention in Implacable’s log relevant to events on this dramatic afternoon, apart from the reference to a Hamilton Deck Watch no. 822 , was an entry that by 1800hrs “all visitors ashore” . But they were not, according to the Vancouver Daily report of the time. “A 7 year old boy was found on-board the following day – chipper and full of life – running along a corridor, known as “The Burma Road”, three decks below by Lieut A. St Clair Armitage.” After the boy was entertained for breakfast he left the ship. The damage to Implacable had totalled $5,000 in 1945 dollars.

The mayor of Vancouver offered full compensation, however the offer was declined by Captain Hughes-Hallett who was reported as saying “Sunday is behind us”. He continued “it was the best welcome Implacable has ever received anywhere”. And when she sailed from Vancouver it was reported that four marines and six seamen were missing, presumably still ashore, maybe looking for a Hamilton Deck Watch no.822?

My mentioning the Implacable story to my friends from Vancouver had certainly opened a real can of worms.

 

Brian Hawkins served in the Royal Navy for his National Service in the 1950’s. Over the years he has contributed to various maritime periodicals including Warship World, The Naval Review and, back in 1997, he wrote an article for Australian Sea Heritage.
Brian is now retired from the BBC. During his career he produced a long running television series Under Sail, based on traditional and more modern sailing vessels, including the 18foot skiffs on Sydney Harbour.

 

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This entry was posted on 23/07/2016 by in Sydney Heritage Fleet.
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