Monday, October 29, 2012

Perisher (Part IV)

In Perisher Parts I to III, I refer often to “Teacher”, the instructor, examiner, and sometime executioner on whether a given officer is up to commanding a British (and in former times Canadian) submarine. I have no reason to think Teacher who put his charges through their paces in HMS Alderney while I was a member of her wardroom was any different than his predecessors or successors.
He was, though, a formidable naval officer. Sandy Woodward, more formally Admiral Sir John Forster (Sandy) Woodward, GBE, KCB, most notably commanded the British naval forces in the Falklands War of 1982. In that role, he ordered the sinking of the Belgrano by HMS Conqueror.
In his subsequent writing Admiral Woodward made it clear he would have given the order with or without Whitehall’s blessing. His request for approval was routed through Whitehall, and made it to Margaret Thatcher’s desk—and she didn’t hesitate to authorize the sinking.
At the time many in Britain and abroad felt the torpedoing of the Belgrano was almost a war crime—now refuted by the facts and confirmed as a legitimate act by the Belgrano's Argentinian captain.
 I recall then-Commander Sandy Woodward as a plain-spoken, direct, demanding and very proficient submariner. He continues to serve his country, even though his submarine days are well past.
He continues to play the hawk, writing for the “Mail Online” on defence matters. (For a sample, see below.) Among other positions, he has stated that Britain would not be able to defend the Falklands given recent naval and military cutbacks.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Perisher (Part III)

I have recently been in touch via the internet with a Scottish friend. We initially “met” because of a mutual interest in WW I and the cavalry. Since then, he has also taken an interest in my blog, which deals with submarine matters as well as the cavalry.
He recently referred me to a site that features a BBC documentary about the Perisher.
It provides a fascinating but brief look at what the course was like, and no doubt still is like. The stress under which the hopeful candidates labour is very evident.
I was particularly excited to see the footage because it features HMS Oracle, a diesel-electric O-boat of the same vintage as the now retired HMCS Ojibwa, Onondaga, and Okanagan, the latter being the only RCN submrarine in which I was lucky enough to serve. The footage of Oracle is brief, and right toward the end.
If any readers have other sites featuring footage of O-boats, A-boats etc I’d be very excited to hear from them.
Here is the site:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

S. H. Williams, Author: "Stand to Your Horses" Part III

Captain S. H. Williams, Military Cross, was the author of “Stand to Your Horses”. (See Sam Williams Parts I and II). Williams worked for the T. Eaton Company in Winnipeg before the start of World War I. After war broke out, he enlisted in the Fort Garry Horse, and in due course was commissioned. The Fort Garrys at that time were in England, and Williams, who was training in Winnipeg, could not get a berth to join his regiment. They were not actively in the front lines at that time, and did not need more men. The Strathcona’s, however, did need men and were in action. Williams to his credit resigned his commission, reenlisted as a private in the Straths, and got overseas almost immediately.
He served with great distinction for the rest of the war, earning the nickname “Lucky Luke”, as mentioned earlier, as he came through the whole conflict without becoming a casualty—a real rarity.
Tom Mackay, my father, also enlisted in Winnipeg but after Williams, and not very willingly. For a fictionalized version of how my father came to be in the Strathcona’s, see my novel Soldier of the Horse. Dad and Williams knew each other well—perhaps too well—but that story is for another day. Oddly enough, both worked for Eaton’s after the war, and had some minimal correspondence. But during the Strath’s battles in France, they served well together.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Perisher (Part II)

(For Part I, see October 8th post.)
Operating as the Perisher training vessel, HMS Alderney was at sea in the Firth of Clyde, the narrow waterway that is the access to Glasgow and not coincidentally Helensburgh and the RN’s submarine base at Faslane. Our depth was fifty-eight feet. We were running blind, as far as vision is concerned—the periscopes were down, so we would be leaving no trace on the surface of the water.
The Perisher candidate stood, checking a stopwatch that dangled on a cord around his neck. At the helm, on the hydroplane controls, at the panel, on the torpedo angle calculator were the most experienced members of the crew. And standing in the background was Teacher, arms folded, his own stopwatch around his neck.
The Perisher candidate tensed. It had been thirty seconds since his last look through the attack periscope. His job was to get us safely under the destroyer screen and fire a dummy torpedo at a merchant ship. In his head he would have imprinted the ranges, bearings, and courses of the surface ships when he last raised the periscope.
“Up periscope.” His voice shook with tension. He stoops to meet the eyepiece as the scope slides smoothly upward. “Target bears—that!” and another officer reads off the bearing. “Range is—two thousand yards. Put me forty degrees on her starboard bow—”
The candidate is zeroing in on the doomed merchantman, when another voice interrupts. It is Teacher.“Flood Q! Full ahead. Keep 120 feet.”
Teacher has taken over from the candidate in order to avoid a dangerous situation. The candidate has forgotten to check the location of the screening destroyer. Even though this is a training exercise, the destroyer crews have been ordered to turn toward any periscope they see—a very dangerous situation for the submarine to be in, as a collision could sink her with all hands, exercise or not.
When Teacher ordered Q tank flooded, the boat became heavy and was quickly dragged down, getting her safely below the surface ships.
Unfortunately for the Perisher candidate, his bags were packed by a crew member, the Alderney surfaced in due course, and rendezvoused with a tug. The candidate, with his bag and a traditional bottle of scotch, disembarked. His Perisher is over. He will never command a submarine.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

S. H. Williams, author: Stand to your Horses Part II

Sam Williams earned the nickname “Lucky Luke” while serving with Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) in the Great War. The sobriquet was gained because he was at one time at least the only LSH officer not wounded or killed. He was awarded the Military Cross; his survival was not because he ducked a fight.
Sam Williams took part in, and had leadership roles in, raids into enemy trenches and numerous runins with the enemy. He also led troopers on foot into the teeth of German machine guns at Rifle Wood, a crucial battle that followed just days after the Battle of Moreuil Wood. Like many a cavalryman he lost horses to enemy action.
Quite apart from his actions against the enemy, however, he pieced together a detailed and lucid account of his war while serving with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. That account, Stand to your Horses, is a bible for those researching the Brigade’s activities in the World War I. The book is available through the LSH(RC) kitshop at their Edmonton barracks. It has served as an original document for numerous researchers, including myself.