Sub Lt Gerald Lloyd-Williams RNVR

Sad to report that one of our most senior members has passed away – Sub Lieutenant Gerald Lloyd-Williams RNVR, died on 23 April 2020 at the grand age of 95. He visited the Museum a year ago for his 94th Birthday

A summary of his career: Gerald Lloyd Williams Joined HMS Raleigh in Autumn 1943, aged 18 Served in HMS Corinthian (Armed Boarding Vessel – Norhern Patrol) as Ord Seaman/CW Candidate (ie. potential officer) from approx. Christmas 1943 to Spring 1944. Joined HMS King Alfred (Stone Frigate – Hove – Officer Training) Passed out as Midshipman RNVR Autumn 1944.Joined HMS Dolphin Autumn 1944, proceeded to HMS Varbel (X Craft base at Port Bannatyne, Isle of Bute) Served (training) in X Craft until near the end of hostilities in Europe. Promoted Sub Lt RNVR. Having failed to secure a place in one of the six X Craft the Americans would grudgingly allow in ‘their’ Pacific War (we had trained up for 18 to go East)), transferred to Special Operations Executive (SOE) to give a little midget submarine experience to a unit playing with a cranky small ‘submersible’ cargo launch. This unit was also using Welman one-man subs for training. Joined HMS Plover, minelayer, on VE-Day; later taking over as her Navigating Officer. Left her (still as Sub/Lt RNVR) to be demobbed just before Christmas 1947.

His daughter Clare writes:

 1947 – 1950 University of Bristol   Joint honours Philosophy and English, other interests included singing (this is where he met my Mother Judy, now 90 and wife of 67 years) and designing theatre sets (especially ingenious ones for travelling productions) [this maybe where the acting suggestion came from ?]

1951 – 1965 Mobil Oil in Nigeria, responsible for this major West African market

1965 – 1966 International Harvester/Savill Tractors in Stratford Upon Avon, heading up Marketing Division

1966 – 1972 Readers’ Digest set up and headed New Business Division

1972 – 1976 Pepsico Inc Regional Chief Executive for operations in NW Europe, New England and Canada

1978 onwards Clemdale Associates : he set up his own business advisory service with clients including BT, UK Government, Federation of Sussex  Industries etc. 

He lists his leisure interests as sailing, music, medieval studies and rural pursuits.  Two children, Giles and Clare. Trying to sum up such a long life in a few words is very difficult.  But plentiful toasts are entirely appropriate:  he is greatly missed. 

The Silver Swan – Gunfire!

Gerald wrote an account of part of his early days in the RN in 1942, courtesy of Rupert Best here it is.

My mind goes back to a small unsteady steel box crammed with half a hundred souls, the mess-deck of one of HM’s Armed Boarding Vessels. Hammocks, lumpish with exhausted men, rubbing together with every North Sea lurch, and looking like so many livid products of a demon charcutiere in the dim lights; while other figures, men just off watch and finding nowhere left to sling their ‘sea-wife’, lay in frowsty, Henry Mooresque shapes on deck or mess-table. We were so crowded below that I used to wonder whether the cubic space per man in that dank inferno was any more than one’s ultimate six-foot entitlement of coffin’s-room.

HMS Corinthian had been a Dutch merchantman in the East Indies trade. Faced with a need for many instant officers, the Navy had squadroned her with a couple of elderly but genuine light cruisers, Dauntless and Diomede, based on Rosyth for the dual purpose of forming part of the early warning system  to the Northern Approaches and of providing evaluating sea-time for would-be commanders of seamen. To the natural rigours of the war at sea were added constant evolutions aimed at revealing what were derisively known as  ‘officer-like qualities’ – OLQs.- amongst we hopefuls, who were designated ‘CW Candidates’. 

We in the CW cadre were butts for both the officers who had us under constant survey; and for the normal lower-deck ship’s company.  The former surveillance involved a sort of continuous, wryly humorous cat-and-mouse game – we trying to escape their ever vigilant eyes if all was not going well, while being seen to shine if it was; they reversing the process.

The most vigilant eyes were those of the First Lieutenant – the Jimmie – and those of the Chief Bo’sun’s Mate – the Buffer. Jimmie-the-One was a seven foot bean-pole, awesomely bloodshot of complexion, with big raw bones and a heavy dew-drop. He appeared out of nowhere like a demon king, especially at the scene of any balls-up.  Between whiles he moved constantly about the ship in seven-league boots, blasting off in an aristocratic foghorn voice “What are you?”   “Fore-topman, sir; holy-stoning party”.  “Good. Carry on”.  “Aye, aye, sir”   

The Buffer was smaller, a long service ‘3-badger’,  less conspicuous but, if that were possible, even more ubiquitousand yes, even with the traditional heart of gold under the outward display of constant disbelief at the lubberliness of us all – by that stage of the war long-servicemen from the old Navy were a sparse thread of experience in the Navy’s weave;  but, so long as you were trying he might suddenly say softly,  “Here, son, let me show you” and you would learn some arcane wrinkle of old Navy sea-lore, like how to tie a bowline around one’s waist, with one hand, in the dark, under water..

The lower-deck’s mild scorn of the CWs was natural enough; some few of us were going to be lording it over them in due course; but it rarely took a more virulent form than a derisive leg-pulling:  daily the Bo’sun’s Mates would walk, piping, through the ship (yes they still did it the old way, not relying on the Tannoy), the traditional midday pipe unofficially augmented: “Hands to dinner!  CW Candidates to luncheon“.

The purpose of our arc of small and antique vessels – converted merchantmen, relegated warships – strung out roughly between Norway, Iceland and the Northern Isles was to watch for the constantly feared and anticipated breakout of one of the major German warships on an ocean-raid.  

At the time of which I am speaking it was their battle-cruiser Scharnhorst we scanned the horizons for, a modern and magnificent fighting ship capable single-handedly of sinking whole huge convoys of food and material supplies butting its way slowly to Britain ‘through the mad March days’, escorts and all.  (Actually it was I think November 1942, mad enough but not March).

Our orders were to make the splendid Nelsonian ‘Enemy in Sight’ signal; and then “sell yourselves dearly”. Some of us may have been makie-learn officers; but that did not prevent our sucking our teeth at this, in the best lower-deck tradition.

Not that we gave more than an occasional wry thought to our dodgy place in the strategic order of things; for, except when below in the messdeck fug, how to survive the cold was the ever-present, overwhelming consideration.  To go on night-watch on those heaving waters one would put on all the clothes one possessed, doubling up on woolly underclothes and sweaters, surmounted by oilies and duffle-coat.  Staggering out onto the upper deck like some over-inflated Michelin-man, scarcely able to bend knee or elbow, one faced the first black blast of the northern wind – and it cut through you as if you were naked to the bone.

It was notable that the two or three ex-public-schoolboys amidst those crammed together in such conditions coped better than the boys from the Gorbals or other hard-case, working class homes (they do well as prison convicts too, one hears).

We had the odd public-school trick for preserving sanity up our sleeves.  As members of a working party I remember four or five of us ostensibly painting outboard of one of the ship’s boats, screened briefly from the roving all-seeing eyes of Jimmie and Buffer, singing madrigals into the teeth of the bitter weather.  (Oh happy memories of the Dover College choir!)  Or to be exact, one madrigal, Orlando Gibbons’s The Silver Swan – the only one of which we could all remember the parts.

While I have never actually investigated their educational antecedents, believing happily in prejudice, I have often been half-irritated, half-amused by a swathe of post-war writers – some of them otherwise admirable and some well-known who apparently could adjust no better to service conditions than could our poor slum-kid shipmates from the Gorbals or East End.  

I suppose as future writers – even if still at the chrysalis stage – they took themselves too seriously to see the surreal humour informing every facet of the Fighting Services’ daily routines.  One instance alone will illustrate what I mean.  In every ship and shore establishment every Sunday, unless guns were actually firing, ships’ companies went to Divisions. This parade and inspection was the most formal of the week; and, with every man and woman in the land notionally under arms, Sunday Divisions at one of the big ‘stone frigates’ – a shore training base or depot barracks – could mean several thousand men all drawn up together in their best rig.  It culminated with the ship’s padre, surplice flying in the wind, saying prayers appropriate for those “who have their business upon great waters”.

The signal that switched matters from the corporeal to the spiritual in this weekly ritual was the barked order “Ship’s Company – Off caps”.  With a great swing of every right arm the assembly swept off their headgear; and bent their heads down in attitude of reverence.  This further signalled the Gunner’s Mates to scurry along the rear of every rank, scrutinising every nape thus so advantageously displayed and whispering reverently under their breath ” ‘air-Cut”.  ” ‘air-Cut”. ” ‘air-Cut, you”.  ” ‘air-Cut”.

Anyone unable to relish any one of a hundred such daily juxtapositions of Dali-esque delights should not in conscience ever take up the writer’s pen. To bring the thought full circle, I have much the same feeling about those other writers – some probably the same writers – who found their schooldays so insufferable; and insist upon boring the world about them and the injustices they felt themselves to have suffered.

I like to look back at a particular piece of hilarity aboard HM’s Good Ship Corinthian.  In order to give the might of Hitler’s battle-fleet pause for thought, My Lords of the Admiralty provided us with one six-inch gun.  By some obscure convention of war which I once knew and understood but which – astonishingly for such a gem of maritime military logic – I have now forgotten, this piece of elderly artillery was mounted on the stern.  

The exact protocol for this arrangement as I say escapes me; but the general implication was that this was a merchant ship which had been armed defensively in time of war – a stern-chaser for use when fleeing a privateer perhaps – whereas to mount guns forward (where they might be of some use except if the enemy conveniently popped up astern) would designate her as an aggressive ship-of-war to be treated with the maximum severity of shot and shell.

The RN’s six-inch breech-loader was as classic a piece of gun armament in our naval history as the carronade, and only slightly more up-to-date.  It had been the basic armament of light cruisers, when one counted the RN’s light cruisers by the dozen, since well before the first world war; and wrought mightily in that earlier dust up.

There it was, our 6-inch BL, pointing aft over the counter, and looking quite charming. I suppose our belligerent posture must have been augmented by Oerlikons on the bridge wings – or am I confusing a later ship in which I served (HMS Plover?)

One day a new gunnery officer was appointed to the ship.  Soon after joining us he announced he had the captain’s permission to have ‘a shoot’, an unprecedented departure from our routine wallowing amongst the ice-flows (the latter to be honest are bits of background colour not based in fact but artistically true.  Never spoil a good story with too much pettifogging accuracy!).  

Many happy matelot days were spent in chipping layer after layer of smartening-up paint off our antique piece of ordinance – in the course of which its proving date of 1903 was revealed. 

As many noisy days passed in training up gun-crews from we would-be officers for the betterment of our souls.  Being pushy in my desire for HM’s Commission, I managed to get myself into the first crew to ‘close up’.

Here I must digress: firstly on the matter of 6-inch BL Gun-drill; and secondly on the sort of people who normally tangled with such things.

I used in those days of dutiful learning to be able to recite the full 39 Articles of RN 6-in BL Gun-drill:  “No 1 at the gun shall…..etc. etc.”  These were the responsibilities in sequence of the members of the crew serving the gun.  Briefly what had to be done was that a shell weighing the better part of a ton, so it felt, had to be man-handled chest high into the breech and rammed home by another ‘number’ in the gun-crew with a pole with a tompon on the end – barely destinguishable from articles used for similar purpose on the gundecks of the sailing navy, before other ‘numbers’ fed silken sacks of cordite in behind it. The door (sorry breech) was then slammed shut on it all. 

There was thenabouts my favourite Article in the ritual “No X (can’t remember – No 3 was it?) at the gun will rime the vent with the vent-rimer provided”.  This meant scraping out the hole in the breech into which finally a cartridge was inserted, with a lanyard hanging out from it.  

Meanwhile the gunlayer and his mate, deity and prophet of this religion, twiddled their wheels.  Then – hallowed moment – when they were “On”, the order “Shoot”, the lanyard – a piece of string, dear – was pulled and the gun went off with a jolly noise.

All of this was accompanied by ferocious and continuous bellowings from gunnery types who were always and exclusively chosen for lung-power.

To complete my memory of these near-forgotten rituals, then, the breech being flung open, yet another ‘number’ swabbed out any residual burning cordite with a wet mop. Astonishingly a good gun-crew could keep up a very high rate of fire by this rigmarole. It was a large shell and as shall be shown it delivered no butterfly kiss. So it must not be inferred that these arcane rites aroused any sense of derision in me – far from it. I wanted that Commission, desperately. 

However – and here is my second digression – for about a hundred years the navy was cleft by a social divide.  There were the smart people, the gunnery specialists whose Valhalla was the Gunnery School at Whale Island; and then there was the rest of the hierarchy, all smaller groups – the Navigators who were thought reasonably OK; the Torpedomen, the gunners’ great rivals, and near the bottom of the pile, the signals specialists (almost made respectable by Lord Louis Mountbatten) – followed by Engineers, Quacks, etc. with at the unmentionable nadir, the Pussers.

Gunnery people were as noisy as their toys and liable to be ostentatious about drills, evolutions and stamping their feet. The rest, from below the salt, tried to keep out of earshot if possible.  

The gunners’ antitheses were the torpedomen, quiet people who, over the years, had also had put under their wings other pieces of silent technology such as mines and these new-fangled ‘electrics’ – although with the precursors of electronics, a whole new Branch (officers uniforms had green between their stripes) took this over while I was still serving.

Torpedoes are beautiful, intricate, contrary and not entirely reliable weapons (they have been known to take off in a parabola of their own divising, to boomerang back and hit their own ship……).  Mines are ugly and primitive.  

Both are silent, deadly and, in the views of right-thinking Victorian-nurtured naval officers, devious and thoroughly un-English (not as bad as submarines of course – they were positively un-gentlemanly and quite beyond the pale; while the combination of submarine and torpedo or mine was unspeakable. Which is why the Submarine Service still always refers to itself as ‘the Trade’).  After all, and the final cry of ‘foul!’, a single well-placed ‘tin-fish’ or discreetly laid mine could do more damage than whole long loud bombardments by beautiful turrets-full of  lovely noisy guns.  (Did I say my war had been as a submarine officer; and that later, HMS Plover was a minelayer?)

To return to the Great Gunnery Day aboard Corinthian, quite a draughty bright day it was, somewhere in the direction of the Faroes.  A barrel as target had been put over the side and was now a bobbing dot on the horizon.  I had done my bit as ‘Number Something at the gun’, struggling the projectile into the maw.  Terrifying volumes of vocal power had been exerted.  The lanyard was pulled.

The blistering tongue of Mars scorched across my face, trimming eye-lashes and brows on its way, cauterising hearing; and bowling me off my feet in the process.  I pulled myself up just in time to see the projectile totter languidly out of the spout and hit the water rather close to the ship. 

 The second hot baptism and general uproar as the shell exploded was much like the first – although attended by different destructive noises – and put me down for a second count.

The first thing I saw on again looking up from an involuntary prone position on the gun-platform was the stem and stern-posts of our whaler hanging in the davits – with nothing between. 

Next I saw the matchwood remains of all the Carley life-rafts about the upper-deck, the gashes of shell-splinters through the chimney, and as one looked around in increasing wonder, carnage everywhere.

We trained the gun back to its old fore-and-aft position and the Buffer went off to his paint-locker in search of a decent veiling of pusser’s grey in which again to enshroud it.  When finally, having cleared up as much of the devastation of war as could be manhandled, we slid down the ladder-rails into the fug below, the ultimate horror was revealed.  

As an ex-merchantman, HMS Corinthian carried many civilian facilities off to war, the military veneers – like our gun – being in many places superficial.  Notable were ‘the heads’ where porcelain ruled instead of war-like naval metal-ware.  The shell-blast had shattered every lavatory bowl and urinal in the ship.

As we limped home to Rosyth, faced with the bleak prospects of arctic exposure at improvised over-the-side facilities on the rising-falling upper-deck, constipation reigned.  Nelson’s sailors would have felt at home.  As did we ex-public schoolboys.

POSTSCRIPT.  Our self-inflicted wounds took a substantial refit at Rosyth to put right; and the ship’s company thereby won some unscheduled leave.  The new Gunnery Officer did not return to the ship after leave; but from the unexpected bosoms of our families we did not begrudge him the occasional favourable quip.

Leave a Reply