An Able Seaman on HMS Belfast
Flora Bain meets the veterans of the Arctic Convoys who recount their memories off their experiences.
Flora Bain: This is Flora Bain at the National Maritime Museum, and I’m talking to Mr Allan Beer, who’s come today to the Arctic Convoys veterans’ event.
So, Mr Beer, how old were you when you joined the Navy?
Allan Beer: I was actually 17 years and 10 months, but it was rather a unique way that I got into the Forces. Would you like to hear that?
I put my name on to join Dad’s Army, the Home Guard, when I was 17-
Flora: Weren’t you young for Dad’s Army?
Allan: I put my name, I told a porky. When I was in there I was patrolling the west cliff of Bournemouth with a gun and grenades. When I got back to work the next day, my colleague was in the Sea Cadets and he put a form in front of me saying, “I wish I was a bit older, like you, I could’ve joined the Navy”. And I said, “Oh, let me see the form”? I duly filled the form out, for fun.
Later in the day I said, “What did you do with the form”? He said, “I’ve posted it”. I was then in the Navy within six weeks, hence I was in far sooner than if I’d been called up legally.
Flora: Gosh. And what was … you’re here today because of the Arctic Convoys event, so you went on one of the convoys?
Allan: Yes, just the raid … it was a combination of seeing the ships into Russia safely, and once that had happened, they re-directed us to accompany the aircraft carriers which were taking the planes to bomb the Tirpitz. So they were proper carriers, and some they called the Woolworth Carriers—which was really a merchant ship with the top sliced off and metal plates to make the landing platform on the merchant ships. So that was quite interesting, seeing them try to come in, landing on the metal plates on top of a merchant ship.
I officially was a gunner. I had a twin Oerlikon mounting on the starboard side of the bridge, but because we weren’t get much problems with aircraft … from anti-aircraft firing, I was a lookout on the bridge. Which was rather uncomfortable because every time the ship dipped its bows in we had water, gallons of water, sprayed in your face. We were in macs and sou’westers, and looked a bit like Michelin men with the padded gear. Of course there was so much darkness you couldn’t see much even being a lookout.
Flora: Was that in winter months, then, that you went through the Arctic?
Allan: Yes. This was March.
Flora: And that was when you were going through the Arctic that you were on lookout like that?
Flora: So how long were you on deck for at any one time?
Allan: Well, we were supposed to be up there for four hours, but if my memory serves me right I think after an hour and a half, two hours, they swapped around a bit for people that weren’t involved in aircraft firing or some other duties.
Flora: And was it cold below deck as well?
Allan: No. It was terribly hot. I suffered quite a lot of seasickness and I kept as near the upper deck as possible. I hadn’t eaten for the best part of a week through the roughness, and the Leading Seaman of our mess came up and said, “Come on, you must come down and have something to eat”. I went down below decks. It was stifling hot and there was pork floating about in the gravy, I took one look at it and went straight up on deck again.
I didn’t go into Russia at all. Our ship only went to the bay, virtually, and back again. I wasn’t involved in anything going … some went into Arkhangelsk, some went into Murmansk, but I certainly never went in.
Flora: So what happened to your ship when you get to that … you said you went-
Allan: You’re at sea all the time anyway, so it’s just a matter of turn around and join the aircraft carriers. They were bombing the Tirpitz and then we went out to Scapa Flow after that.
Flora: And what’s Scapa Flow like?
Allan: Just a big open space of water where the home fleet was based, more or less most of the time. It’s where the Royal Oak was sunk by a German torpedo.
Flora: And do you remember how long you were on that convoy for?
Allan: I think it was probably about seven or eight days, as best as my memory … (Laughter).
Flora: And that was on HMS Belfast?
Flora: And you’ve met up with people since then, after the war?
Allan: Well, basically through the Belfast Association, yes. So it’s been nice meeting up with one or two. I can’t remember on board because there were probably a thousand of us on board.
Flora: Really? Lovely. Well, Mr Beer, thank you so much for talking to me.
Allan: That’s all right.
Flora: It’s been a real pleasure to meet you today.
Allan: Thank you.