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Pooped Aboard HMS Artful

by Les Willcox

My story really started on my return from my foreign commission in Malta, where I had served on HMS Triumph (a Colossus class light fleet carrier), and HMS Mauritius (a Fiji class cruiser) - both on constant Palestine patrols, with HMS Mauritius carrying out the last interception of the heavily laden immigrant ships (Pan York and Pan Crescent) with altogether 15,240 immigrants on board. Both were on their way to the shores near Haifa, where the thousands of 'illegals' would disappear into the emerging Israel.

After a three month TD3 course (Torpedoes / Detector) on board the Depot Ship HMS Forth and at the Anti Submarine Detection School on Manoel Island I boarded the Troopship MV Georgic for passage back to Liverpool, foreign service leave and return to Chatham Barracks. Incidentally Georgic was the last ship built for the White Star line) and had been rebuilt following a devastating air raid by German bombers when she was moored at Port Tewfik in the Gulf of Suez on 14th July 1941. This left her burnt out and beached - I could see that her upper deck bulkheads were warped. It was the last troopship out of Palestine before the end of the British Mandate and the emergence of the State of Israel on 14th May 1948.

The regime at Chatham Barracks was one of discipline and there was considerable overcrowding - following the recent war we still had vast numbers of men. The pavement outside the Wardroom was out of bounds to ratings and junior ratings had, at all times, to double across the parade ground chivvied on by an unemployed chief stoker in boots and gaiters blowing a whistle and yelling for more effort in leaping across the hallowed ground. The 25th June 1948 saw me on my way to HMS Dolphin having found it was the only draft available to escape the awful food and conditions of Chatham Barracks.

After passing through the School and living in Dolphin and, of course, the original small escape tank I was drafted to HMS Truculent - courtesy of HMS Truncheon who carried a party of us to Portland. After a most uncomfortable night passage we arrived off Portland where the Skipper had orders to dive and carry out dummy attacks on the battleship HMS King George V as she left Portland for exercises.

I was on Part Three Training and by 16th November, I decided a refit of the Truculent at Chatham was not for me and swapped boats to HMS Selene (a super S, with 'Guppy' style bridge).


In the absence of our Depot Ship, HMS Maidstone which was away on 'Summer War' exercises we operated from our berth alongside the old Coaling Jetty. In later years what we called 'Day Running' in the Channel, spawned the John Mills film 'Morning Departure'. There was a good shot of the T boat used leaving Maidstone for Day Running, with the Skipper, crouching out of sight, passing John Mills the orders for departure. A very young Richard Attenborough was featured in the control room as the crew realised they were going to die. Something we all had to realise was a possibility as we pursued our calling, referred to as the 'Trade'. Having delivered Selene to a civilian yard - Scotts at Greenock - I finished up at Dolphin and a draft to HMS Artful on 7th January 1949 - my home until 12th September 1950.

On the 22nd January Artful left Dolphin (5th Submarine Flotilla) having provisioned for a lengthy patrol in the Artic Circle as part of Operation Strongbox. Two features concerning our provisions spring to mind.

As old Submariners will remember the bread only lasted a few days - so the Pompey bakers double wrapped the loaves with the wax based wrapping of those days. Chef (we only carried one) had been sent on a three day course at Lyons (the Corner Cafe people) and there to learn how to defreeze the frozen food - known as 'Frood'. This finished up on your plate with practically no taste at all - except for the plum duff which was not too bad.

We transferred to the 3rd Submarine Flotilla based at Rothesay and the Depot Ship HMS Montclare. Inboard for Asdic Exercises (I still lived in the fore-ends because of my other qualification - Torpedoes).

Storing the boat continued apace as we took on three months stores and tinned foods (very limited variety in those days). Fortunately we were to have a week or so on fresh chickens. The passageway from the fore-ends to the after bulkhead of the accommodation space was stacked with crates of provisions. So we all realised that individual height was in favour of our shorter members. However, where things went badly wrong was the potato situation. Before leaving Montclare the stokers were asked to hump the spuds inboard for washing and drying. This gives an extended freshness before going all mangy. They normally cried off storing ship for refuelling reasons. So they cut off their noses to spite their faces by hosing down the spuds in the bathroom inboard with hot water. Result - within days the spuds had to be ditched because of the smell.

The national press came to photograph the crew from the Montclare's gangway as we mustered on the casing in front of the bridge. I have long since lost my copy but managed, over the years to retain a photo of some of the crew aft of the bridge draped all over the 'band stand' (the open end of the bridge with railing and short ladder to the casing, where it was originally intended to mount an oerlikon gun mounting) and the rest of us on the casing. Also I have a rather dark photo of Artful coming alongside, after the patrol.

By now we were given a clearer picture of what was in store for us. The patrol consisted of joining a small group of warships and an RFA supply ship. Our supposed safety ship which I believe was the frigate HMS Loch Arkaig we saw only briefly when we swapped films. I remember one featured Cyd Charisse in a dream dancing scene. The other was 'The Outlaw' with Jane Russell. I well remember the scene when a guy had his ear lobes shot away; a very daring and complex stunt for those days, and featured for the first time, such daring cleavage, which was obviously more interesting than the shattered lobes.

We shoved off from the Montclare on the 16th February 1949 having had my 21st birthday on 31st January and my first 'tot'. By 23rd February we were north of Jan Mayen Island. The 'Jimmy', Lt Farquarson had left S/Lt Stothers (a small ships trainee) who had chosen submarines as his chosen field of furthering his career to complete the watch with AB Fenwick as his lookout.

Here, I must point out that our special equipment, which included useless clothing and gear for cold weather trials (that was our cover story for being up there) should have also included safety harnesses for the bridge watch keepers. In fact, the 2nd Coxswain (Scratcher) had spent most of his time in the Control Room splicing lengths of rope to tie us to the periscope standards. As to the special clothing and gear; we were issued with two pairs of long johns, they were good; a pair of short leather jack boots, they were good; a pair of flying type boots worn by bomber crews, they were useless as we were always wet (standing on the bridge of an 'A' boat, you were never more than 16 feet above the sea. The only place for drying outer clothing was a very small machine space situated down with the evaporator (desalination unit); the two string vests were returned as balls of string; the seal skin gloves- they were fair. Best of all, was the very few two piece Ursula suits. The best waterproofs I have ever used. As they were used for bridge watch keepers, they were always damp, to say the least. The CO of HMS Ursula (George Colvin) was I believe, credited with its introduction to 'boats'.

This prompts me to a 'dit'- a signal to a boat that was awaiting another boat coming alongside her that read 'Stand by to take Ursula's breasts!'

At about 0255 we were pooped (being caught in a following sea and pushed forward at speed and a downward motion). We should have been hove to and just about keeping station as we would plough into the oncoming sea with waves reaching 50+ feet. If we had been we could have coped with the sea that came over us, all the time, by means of a twill trunking, at the foot of the conning tower ladder that enabled us to scoop out the contents of the shallow bottom of the trunking and pour it down the bilges. This protected our under-deck batteries and thus us from chlorine gas. The upper and lower hatches had to be open for the diesel engines to operate.

I was fast asleep in the fore-ends; the lower lid was shut by the force of sea as we dived to about 35 feet and rolled at an angle, which must be mentioned somewhere in the archives.

I woke up, as one did in boats and rushed to the Asdic Office in the Control Room. The boat managed to surface and the lower lid opened. Here, once again I must explain that Lt Peter Fenton (the CO) had been in his cabin which was situated between the lower hatch of the conning tower and the upper hatch. This placed the cabin outside the pressure hull. He had the ultimate wake up call, his cabin flooding. He was OK and assisted with gaining access to the bridge. There they found young Fenwick wrapped around the 'standards' and no sign of S/Lt Stothers. Fenwick must have had a rope around his waist. S/Lt Stothers would not have suffered in these waters - practically death within seconds.

I reckon we must have 'hove to'. Although wet and the deck littered with broken crockery, we were alive in a boat that had as usual, been made by very professional and dedicated builders, Scotts of Greenock.

Able Seaman Fenwick broke down three days later and had to be sedated. He continued to be active amongst us - there was no room for passengers in those days - but he was reverted to General Service on our return to Montclare.

Life must go on. After the loss of the 'Subby' we managed a few days of comparative calm and actually touched the ice cap, somewhere. On bridge duty one spent most of the time chipping away at ice on the standards. The 'snorkeling' exercises never really came about. The weather was just 'bloody awful'. We tried to enjoy our ration of three films in the fore-ends - my home and bedroom - which of course, was the only space we could view our 35mm, 3 reel films. It was always a relief to see the stokers, Chiefs and POs leave our domain and we could get our heads down or relax.

Of course, we had our permanent residents - the torpedo reloads - not forgetting those in the tubes (bar one) with their amatol warheads. Every evening gash buckets were assembled at the foot of the conning tower hatch - with a damp cloth over the top of each bucket. With the diesels constantly sucking air down the tower, you did not need to be decorated with the contents of the gash bucket!

At last, a strange command decision, one that was not shared with us earlier. We had wondered why we were carrying a long hollow tube in the fore-ends. It was for waste (gash) disposal - via the torpedo tubes. Possibly for the time we never spent at diving stations! We dutifully filled this darn contraption and really packed it tight - only to be ordered later to unload the compressed gash and dispose of it over the side. Why we could not have discharged the container via the tubes as an exercise, is beyond me.

At this point I must explain - for the uninformed of the modern generation - that we dived in our boats for minimum periods - unlike our comrades of today who dive for the duration of the patrol. We only had the air we dived with. We had CO2 absorption units (round cylinders into which you inserted candles of chemicals) that were supposed to scrub or clear the existing air of carbon dioxide. When we surfaced and the upper and lower hatches were opened and the diesels started up, a ferocious down draft faces you as you ascend and descend to and from the bridge. In Artic conditions it is quite daunting. On surfacing the low pressure blower took over the blowing of the ballast tanks from the HP air bottles of 3,000lb per square inch. As soon as the top hatch was open the diesels kicked in. Your first lung full of fresh air brought on giddiness and light headiness. Makes you appreciate one of three things in life, especially in 'Boats'- fresh air, fresh water and daylight. Even today I still bless all three.

Meals were haphazard and, due to the weather only very rarely were we able to dive. Our boats were not safe to dive or surface in adverse weather. In wartime of course, you would just take your chance. Water was rationed. Our distillers were run by a stoker in the bowels of the boat and he strived hard to get even a gallon at a time.

I mentioned bread earlier. Our only chef had to bake at night - allowing each member of the crew two slices of fresh bread daily. He slept during the day (when our only Leading Officers' Steward took over the galley) leaving the Officers being tended by whoever was available. Teamwork is paramount in the submarine world.

We reckoned on two gallons a day for drinking, washing and cooking, for each member of crew. This was allocated strictly on trust. I chose 1900 for my daily basin of warm water. There were three watches of duty men - red, white and blue. Everyone worked 2 hours on duty for patrol and diving stations, when the boat is open to dive at a moments notice, then 4 hours off. During passage routine when the boat is locked up and is not required to dive, we were able to stand down members of a watch, in turn.

HMS Vengence, (a Colossus class Light Fleet Carrier) used extensively in Artic cold weather trials in 1948/49 was the flag ship - but we never sighted her. We were never advised of any wireless traffic. All I can remember is that we had a short signal out daily and incoming, which, of course, only the 'sparkers' were aware off. What sticks in my mind is the incoming, constant, Morse code from Rugby wireless station (as I recall: GBR?). In the Control Room we had the W/T office and Asdic, I won't say office, it was about as spacious as a public telephone booth.

Artful's signature tune was 'I'll join the Legion' by the then very popular singer, Joseph Locke. It was arranged that we would get hold of all the pots and pans from the galley, when the recall signal was received around midnight on the day we expected to return to Montclare and we would march up and down the now empty passageway, in the accommodation space, what a racket ensued! The Skipper had managed to get us positioned at the extreme limit (nearest to home) of our patrol area. Boy, did we cram on our full 18 knots for home and getting ashore.

My photograph of Artful coming alongside Montclare's port side, which as I said is quite dark, reminds me why - it was late in the day on 19th March. We were delayed as we came down the Irish Sea because our Skipper accepted a request to carry out some exercise, before entering the calm waters of the Clyde.

In August 2002, I was most privileged to be shown around the BAe Devonshire Dock Hall, home to the Vanguard Class 'Trident' Boats- one of which was named HMS Vengence - and now the Astute Class of Attack boats. I actually touched one of the three giant modules - just aft of what will be the Control Room.

Two Upholder Class boats remained. HMS Upholder, on which I managed a swift tour, dismayed me as I was told she was being cannibalised to get the other boat away to Canada. We all know about the fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi (ex Upholder).

Now there is to be a new Artful, the third of the Astute Class, with the keel laying ceremony performed on 11th March 2005 by the First Sea Lord Sir Alan West. What a change from my 'Artful' days. The new boat will be powered by a Pressurised Water Reactor 2, equipped with Core H, which will fuel the reactor for the submarine's full service life, ending the need for costly reactor refuelling. Truly the 40s and 50s were 'bows and arrows' compared with today's technology and firepower.

However, do not forget that the Argentimian Cruiser 'General Belgrano' was sunk by a nuclear powered boat- HMS Conqueror - but with a Mark 8 Mod 4 torpedo. What you might call 'tried and tested'!

Following the return of HMS Artful from the Arctic patrol, we did a bit of day running from HMS Montclare and a spell across at 'Derry' (Londonderry), alongside the jetty and, subsequently, with the LCT HMS Stalker. There followed a transfer back to HMS Dolphin and much needed refit in the Pompey Dockyard.

Volunteers were called for from Dolphin to man HMS Sidon, which was in the Reserve Group, alongside 'petrol pier'. The good folk living at King's Lynn, had requested that a submarine visit them as the only submarine to ever be docked at the port was a captured German U-Boat in 1916. I was accepted as one of the steaming crew (which was much reduced in complement, due to the boat being 'locked-up' from diving), and so we did our 'passage routine' to Kings Lynn.

On arrival we had a number of attempts to enter the dock from acute left hand turns against a fast incoming tide. Eventually, we secured alongside the wooden jetty and the High Street. I was volunteered as first 'trot' sentry. Half an hour later, an irate Coxswain demanded to know where all his junior ratings had disappeared to. The CO was expected back with the local Mayor, very shortly.


The 'Swain' went ashore and finally tracked his quarry in the conveniently very local bars. The boat was opened to the public most of the day and we spent a pleasant week there. The area was swamped with Yanks from the neighbouring airfields, so local 'talent' was in short supply. You could say I was lucky to meet a very charming young lady (I guess she was between Yanks, or so her young brother advised me).

Back to Pompey, a few days of leaving the boat as we found her and to her reserve duties. You are fully aware of her fate alongside HMS Maidstone and the recent unveiling of a memorial in Weymouth. And so on to Lt. Farquharson, the 'Jimmy' on the HMS Artful

In 1961, I was out in Malta, as an RPO and serving as the Lower Deck Representative at NAAFI Malta, which required me to visit the UK twice a year. After attending the July Royal Navy Meeting at NAAFI, Kennington, I found I could not fly to Gibraltar (like Cyprus, the Royal Navy there were also my constituents) So after a night's sleep at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, I reported aboard HMS Wizard (being part of the Dartmouth Squadron, she had lots of cadets onboard) at Devonport, for passage to Gibraltar.

I was delighted to find the Coxswain to be CPO John (Shorty) Featherstone, a truly well respected submariner, doing his 'Gens' stint before retiring to the Recruitment Service. After we had cleared port and entered a very rough Channel, we shortly had an emergency which entailed landing a Midshipman with appendicitis at Brest. Then Shorty and I managed to catch-up with each other - he telling me that Commander Farquharson was the CO and wished to see me the following day on the bridge at 15.00.

A very pleasant hour passed, with the sun out and the Bay of Biscay behaving itself, for a change. The crew were in whites, which, fortunately, I had with me for my visit to Gib. We talked about the Artful and in particular the 'pooping' incident. We both knew what happened and the sadness of losing Subby Stothers and the shattering of Fenwick's well-being. So we moved onto more up to date happenings. Apparently he had recently completed a secondment to the diplomatic staff in Washington, DC, USA.

The last time I met John (Shorty) Featherstone was at the 2000 Memorial Service at Chatham for the 50th Anniversary of the loss of HMS Truculent.



I'm very sad that Les is no longer with us as I contacted him back in 2010. Unfortunately I then became poorly with kidney disease and didn't keep up the contact.
My Dad, George Graves was on this same expedition and I have a photo of them all on the boat which pulled alongside, as Les mentioned here.
Would it be of use to anyone?
Kind regards
Lynne Brayne
   Lynne Brayne  Wed, 11 Jan 2017
Les Willcox is my Dad and this article gives me a rare insight into his younger years.Sadly missed and a great supporter of the Submariner's Association.
   DAVID M WILLCOX Sat, 1 Sep 2018

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