Sunday, September 02, 2007

HMT Dalmatia, October 20th, 1940

The Actor John Gregson better known for his starring roles in such films as 'Whisky Galore', 'Angels One Five', 'Genevieve and The Captain's Table', served during WW2 with the Royal Naval Patrol Service.
One of his first drafts was to the converted armed trawler HMT Dalmatia and below is a letter he wrote to his sister Stella in Liverpool whilst serving with the minesweeper.

The letter gives good insight into the dangers faced by the RNPS crews sweeping enemy mines. As the war progressed these mines were becomimg
more sophisticated and dangerous to render 'safe'. Added to this problem minesweepers were always under the treat of attack from e-boats or enemy aircraft while carrying out their duty.

H.MT. Dalmatia, October 20th, 1940.

Dear Arthur (his brother-in-law, Stella’s husband),

The 3/6d more than covers the damage and is guiltily but gratefully received. The stuff was meant as a gift actually but if you feel better sending me half-a-dollar as a kind of counter-gift – well, O.K. But remember 2/6 is ample for half a pound of ‘tea.’

To ease your mind, there is no censorship of my letters. Say what you like and how you like – it’s O.K. with the navy and with me. Since we now pull into Newhaven and are granted leave, it is the easiest thing in the world to post packages ashore. At Portsmouth one has to take a risk. Dozens of special police give you the once-over when you walk out the gates. They look at your gas –mask for any ‘ominous bulge’ – they’re a suspicious bunch – I can’t think why-!

I sent a parcel home last week – going out one day with a parcel of dirty washing and leaving it in cold storage in the sailors’ home, then going out the following day with a half-bottle of rum in my sock and packets of ‘tea’ stowed about my person. When the cop looked at my card and said ‘O.K. Jack!’ I felt like saying ‘That’s what you think.’ I got the parcel of washing out and, wanting to add the ‘milk’ and ‘tea’, I took the darn thing to the only place possible to do the packing in secrecy. Well, while I was sitting there with socks, cigs, rum, matches and shirts all about me, a guy pulls open the door and when he sees me his eyes nearly pop out of his head with astonishment. ‘That’s O.K.’ I said, ‘I always do my washing down here.’ He beat it.

How am I doing?’ you ask. Today – not bad at all,- it’s Sunday, I’m ashore in Pompey, I’m going to have tea soon and then see a movie (bang goes your 3/6). Tomorrow we put to sea and then starts the fun. There is a lot, Arthur, that I do not put in my letters to mother. I will not tell her of the body (not the first) we picked up yesterday – it had been in the water a long time. When a body is found we are supposed to identify it – search for papers, etc. – the seamen do the dirty work. This fellow was a German pilot – he was headless and limbless.

Nor do I tell of this new mine menace – we picked two mines up yesterday, an hour after sinking the body – they’re a new type entirely – he’s using a lot of new mines – some they call acoustic mines – the sound of propellers is enough to explode them.

When we left Newhaven on Friday night the Skipper ordered everyone on deck with lifebelts – five mines were in the harbour but we got out O.K.
Last week two trawlers were sunk on this patrol by German destroyers and another trawler is missing completely.

Gerry got to know that Eastbourne is an open(?) town – whilst laying off there each day we were subjected to about three raids a day, on one occasion being bombed by what we took to be a British seaplane because he dropped our own recognition flares. When, however, he dived and dropped a bomb by our bows, we knew we had been mistaken. I shall never forget the Junkers that let fly with a whole stick of bombs – you could see them leave the bomb rack, hear the awful screech and then see the great spouts of water that shot skywards. We are a hard target. So it’s not all beer and skittles.
Tuesday evening - at sea.
I meant to mail this last Sunday or Monday, but the Navy decided otherwise.
So here I am feeling quite weary after two days ‘sweeping’ and another two days to do ‘ere hitting harbour. Actually the sweeping is being done by the other five trawlers – we follow up and lay the dan buoys – marking the course swept – then we pick the damn things up again. Sounds easy but it’s the hardest work I’ve done since I left the good old A.T.M. Quite a change. I’m certainly not overburdened with work on this ship. It’s just a series of monotonous watches – standing and looking at the sea for hours on end or maybe holding onto the wheel for the same period. The air raids liven the proceedings somewhat and although we have seen no action for a week now, we certainly had our share of bombs during those days off Eastbourne.
It was that bloody bell. The first week back from leave when the blitzkrieg started in earnest was pure hell. Until we got used to being awakened by that alarm bell we were all a bundle of nerves. The funniest thing was when we got ashore. I was in a pub with the gunlayer – a bell rang and we both jumped up – just shows the way it gets you!
That’s too much about me – it’s not really a tough life – it’s easy, dead easy – the only thing that occasionally gets me is that there is no escape from it. When I try to imagine what five, six, ten years of this sort of routine will be like! Hell! Of course the commonsense thing is to develop an ‘artistic outlet’ – a hobby. I wish I was crazy about astronomy or fishing or knots. Too bad the only thing that held my interest was acting – not much chance of doing any of that now. I had thought of becoming a kind of recluse, living in books studying drama and dreaming of the days to come when the war is over and I’ll be all loaded up with so much knowledge that it’ll be a push-over. But it doesn’t work out that way – or does it?

When I return to harbour, Stella’s letter may be awaiting me – I hope so. She mentioned on a sheet of your own letter that she intended taking the children to Greenbank Park and it strikes me as being a good idea. It’s a good idea for everyone to get into the country these days as much as possible. The other day I took a walk from Newhaven to Lewes. I can honestly say that I forgot the war for that one day – it was grand. It took me ‘right out of myself’. So did the film I saw last week - the funniest film for a long time. Title – ‘THE GHOST BREAKERS’. The story doesn’t matter but the stars are Bob Hope and a negro called Stepin Fetchit.
Now that’s all for now – I’ll send another half pound of ‘tea’ soon. Tell me – does the potato keep it fresh? I’ll probably send the next lot in its original tin.


Blogger Tomcann said...

Nick -

What a great story - and honest about the life on the ocean wave keeping an eye skinned for mines which could go off at anytime - and usually did.

I always liked him as an actor and he wasn't embroiled in the Hollywood scens as many others were, the memory of Genevieve always brings a chuckle.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Ron Goldstein said...

Many thanks for posting that most interesting piece about John Gregson which was completely new to me and, I would guess, many others.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Nick Clark said...

Hi Tom & Ron

Glad you both liked this posting as it’s one of my favourite pieces I have collected of the years and I think it’s a real gem..

I also think John Gregson seemed a good sort and I liked him in ‘Battle Of The River Plate’. Perhaps if I were a little older I would say they don’t make films like that anymore! The Cruel Sea has to be my favourite war film though and my father was actually friends with Jack Hawkins …but that’s another story!

What I find so interesting about this letter is that in 1940, John Gregson would have been just another ordinary sailor expressing some of the uncertainty of going to sea sweeping enemy mines and facing many unknown dangers.

I would love to find more of his letters he wrote while serving on HMT Dalmatia.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Nick -
you've got that right about not making films like that anymore - I switched on to a movie just last night and had to switch it off after less than three minutes.

What I will not understand is why they have young - nice looking girls - spouting filth from their mouths every three seconds - there is no need for it and it does nothing for their esteem.

Yet almost every movie to-day has this bad language constantly being spread to infect even younger people when the English language can be so beautiful.

The days of enjoying good movies appears to have gone along with many other civilising patterns.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Nick Clark said...


Just noticed in my weekend TV guide a real gem of a film which should get you switching on your TV set again!

David Lean's 'In Which We Serve' Friday 7th September 10.42am BBC2 - Its an old classic again but at least they're still showing them!

All the best


Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Nick -
Unfortunately - we do not get the BBC films over here and we are stuck with the worst - seemingly - that Hollywood serves up as "entertainment" - ever since Disney was bought out - the standard has plumetted over here from Hollywood - I never go to the movies nowadays for that very reason - the have NO standards !

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Frank mee said...

John Gregson was one of my favourite actors always reminding me of the pre war laid back Englishman.
This letter is quite an eye opener, I did not know he served in minesweepers though I did know he was in the Navy during the war.
Having lived through the wartime blue pencil years when we were told very little it did not seem to change much directly after the war. Then of course every one wanted to forget it.
I watched a documentary on British films tonight, they were talking about war films and the Cruel Sea was one.
They said the scene where they sailed through men in the water and dropped depth charges would not have been shown in wartime. The film was made after the war.
Thanks for the story.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Nick Clark said...


A RNPS veteran I still keep in contact with is Joe Steele who was with John Gregson on HMT Dalmatia. I actually spoke to Joe today and he’s kindly going to send me a copy of an interview he did for the Imperial War Museum in which he talks about his wartime experiences, including his memories of John Gregson. So as they say - watch this space!

I think the depth charge scene in 'The Cruel Sea' really must be the film's most tense and unforgettable moment. Sadly this actually did happen and if you go to my web site and read Bertie Male's story, (at you’ll see an account of this happening to HMS Cocker's crew on 4th June 1942.

I also have a copy of a letter that the Commanding Officer of HMS Cocker sent to the Captain of Local Patrols, Alexandria regarding his men being attacked in the water by depth charges fired from HMS Gloxinia, (coincidently a ‘Flower Class’ Corvette the same type of vessel as the fictitious ‘Compass Rose’ in the film). The names of the Officers concerned in this letter have been omitted and so I may post this later if people are interested?

Not showing men being depth charged in wartime is probably understandable. After all it couldn’t (even by today standards) really be shrugged off as friendly fire now could it!

Perhaps we should also remember that incidents such as these happened more to the Merchant sailors and their duty to this country during both wars is hardly ever remembered. What's more, it’s shocking to think that if they were lucky enough to survive a sinking ship they returned home only to find their pay had been cancelled. Literally as soon as they hit the water and it was the case of no ship- no pay!

Monday, 03 September, 2007  
Blogger Boabbie said...

A wonderfull letter Nick especially when it was written by someone we think we knew because of his films.I look forward to reading Joe Steeles interview and the letter about the depth charging.

Monday, 03 September, 2007  

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