Veteran Stories:
John Bennett


  • HMS Abercrombie on which Mr. John Bennett served as an artificer during the Second World War.
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"It was hot. There were no bathroom facilities on board; one had to go up off the ship to them. And during the course of time practically everybody on board ended up with dysentery, so you can imagine it was a very unpleasant period."


[Enlistment and training]

Well to be frank, at the time it was basically for a job. Again, times were still pretty hard there. One’s parents couldn’t afford to keep you and it was, well actually, I picked up a brochure in the post office one day and it happened to deal with the Artificer Training Program [in the context of Mr. Bennett’s enlistment in the Royal Navy in January 1940]. And it just looked attractive to me, I knew I had to do something to sort of you might say support myself as it were. And so I actually decided to do that.

And it was actually quite difficult to get into the Navy in those days. I remember very well when I had to take an examination of typical sort of high school standards, you know in what, maths, science, I think probably a bit of English and that sort of thing. And I remember when they sent a list of all the results, including everybody that had taken it.

And there were about, as I recollect, something over 3 000 entries and they only took in the Naval Artificer Program, they only took I think not much more than 100 applicants. In the class I was in in one place there were actually about 70 of us got in. And I remember I just got in, I’d actually come 100th in this exam exactly, 100th I remember. Because of a few people being medically unfit, colour blind, you know little things like that; they were not taken in.

And then so we then went into this rather intensive training program which lasted actually four years. It was originally a four and a half year course peace time, but they cut it back to four. But it was a very, very intensive and very good course actually, I must admit. In the Navy at that time, as they did in the Canadian as you probably know, they had engine room, electrical and ordinance artificers who were the basic tradesmen, and shipwrights and a few other trades as well. Because of course obviously, especially in the case of the British Royal Navy, when you could be away for a few years at a time you had to actually be able to fix, you know repair and that, a pretty wide variety of things. You had to pretty well be able to do, well I would say fix nearly anything. They at different times carried out quite sort of large jobs because they had to be done.

[Serving in the Mediterranean waters]

Actually, it was not very exciting. I came and joined the [HMS] Abercrombie [a British Royal Navy Roberts class monitor] shortly after it had been mined in the Italian theatre [as she was supporting the Allied landings near Salerno in September 1943]. I joined and spent, oh I don’t know, a few weeks, first few weeks working like hell getting the ship back into shape. They were – and then it might be something that probably may be of some interest to you, because they didn’t have available to them the facilities to properly repair the mine damage with plates, you know steel plating and that sort of thing; it had to all be done by the ships company and they just didn’t have that kind of equipment on board. They repaired it with concrete, concrete and timber, which worked all right up to a point.

So anyway, we did finally get the ship repaired, ready for sea. We sailed to Malta and ammunitioned. We were about to go to carry out a bombardment, I think it was in the South of France planned. And on the way there we hit another two mines [on 21 August 1944]. So the plan was get back into Malta. We had to throw everything overboard that we could move to stay afloat, but we did manage. We had to be towed in because we’d lost our power as well. And then we did finally get in with about, I think about 12 inches of freeboard left. And I spent then the rest of the time on it practically repairing it again. So my time in the war consisted mainly of sweating.

And I will tell you this, this was very, very uncomfortable because the ship itself was a very shallow ship. You know, from the keel to the upper deck didn’t measure much. But because it was very broad it was put in a battleship dry dock. And when it was on the blocks I’d say the upper deck was a good dozen or 15 feet below the level of the dockside. And among other things, the meat locker had been blown open by the mine, or had been, you know, burst open and the meat was all rotting, stank like hell.

But also, because they were going to carry out – and this was, as you may know, Malta dockyard, it was a very well equipped dockyard; it was capable of carrying out any kind of repairs, for a ship, the biggest, no question about that. So they spent a long time as well with pneumatic drills, drilling out, oh I don’t remember, it must have been, oh I don’t know, a couple hundred tons of concrete. It was all in a big compartment on the side of the ship, which more or less practically filled with concrete to plug up the mine damage. Because basically, on either side there are full-length, I guess you call them blisters that reach out it must be about a dozen feet. And these are used as flotation chambers basically, that can either reduce or, if flooded, increase the draft of the vessel; so the convenience of the sailing conditions where they are.

And so basically the first mine had primarily blown a big hole through this, it was on the side. So they were able to do that with – practically fill this space up with concrete. It would be I guess about, I don’t know, 20 foot long or something of that sort of space. But as I say, it had all to be drilled out. And so when one was living on the ship in there, there were the pneumatic drills hammering away, drilling this out. It was hot. There were no bathroom facilities on board; one had to go up off the ship to them. And during the course of time practically everybody on board ended up with dysentery, so you can imagine it was a very unpleasant period.

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