My maternal grandfather, Walter Shaw (second from the right in the front (seated) rank in the photo above), was born on 2 Jan 1894 in Hadfield, a small mill village in the High Peak region of Derbyshire close to the town of Glossop. He was employed in the cotton mills as a “creeler” – someone who winds cotton yarn on to the bobbins used in textile production. In 1912 at the age of 18 he joined the Royal Navy and, despite (or perhaps because of) his short stature (5ft 2ins), he was trained and employed as a stoker. He signed on for 12 years and completed his service in 1924 the year after my mother was born.
Sadly , as I would dearly have liked to talk to him about his Royal Navy service, I only met my grandfather once when I was very young. However, as is the way with these things, two stories about him filtered down to me through oral family tradition. The first was that one of the ships on which he had served had been torpedoed. The story went that Walt (as I shall continue to refer to him throughout this narrative) had dived into the sea in an attempt to abandon ship but was surprised a short time later when he felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. Turning his head to see what was going while still swimming frantically, he saw one of his fellow stokers who said “What are you doing Walt?” He replied “I’m trying to get away from the ship – it’s sinking”. To which his mate replied “Well, you’re not going to get far – you’re still on the &*@$£ deck!” The water he had dived into had been a flooded part of the after deck and he was, indeed, still on board the ship. The other family tradition had it that he had served on board the battleship HMS Warspite at the Battle of Jutland when she had had her steering gear damaged by German shelling and had executed several full circles in front of the might of the High Seas Fleet while sustaining yet more damage from their main armament.
On Monday 11 July 2011, I obtained my grandfather’s Royal Navy service record from the National Archives and discovered that, while neither of these stories was strictly true, both of them likely had some basis in fact. Walt joined the Royal Navy on 25 Sep 1912 and trained at Devonport which appears to have remained his home port, or at any rate his drafting organisation, throughout his career. His service number was K16140 – the K prefix indicating that he enlisted in the stoker branch - and he remained a stoker throughout his service.
The photograph above, showing my grandfather second from right in the front (seated) row, was taken on board HMS Delhi (qv) some time between January 1921 and December 1923.
Following basic training, on 5 Feb 1913, Walt was drafted to his first ship. This was HMS Orion, the lead ship of the Orion class of superdreadnought battleships. When Walt joined her she was a very shiny new ship indeed having only been in commission for a year. Her keel was laid in Portsmouth Dockyard on 29 Nov 09 and she was launched on 20 Aug 10, starting her first commission on 2 Jan 12. Orion represented several “firsts” in the history of the Royal Navy and, indeed, in the history of battleships. She was the first British dreadnought battleship to have main armament guns of a calibre greater than 12 inches; the first British battleship to have superfiring turrets, and the first to mount all her main armament turrets on the centreline of the ship. She was armed with 10 x 13.5” guns disposed in five twin turrets, two forward (A and B turrets), two aft (X and Y turrets) and one amidships (Q turret). Her secondary armament in 1913 would have consisted of 16 x 4” Breech Loading Mk VII guns and she was also equipped with 3 x 21” torpedo tubes mounted below the water line. When my grandfather joined her, Orion was, as far as I can tell, flag-ship of the Second Division of the Home Fleet. She went on to serve throughout World War 1 and, at the Battle of Jutland, she carried the flag of Rear-Admiral Arthur Leveson, second in command of the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. In 1919 she became flagship of the Reserve Fleet in Portsmouth and, in 1921 she took on the role of seagoing gunnery training ship at Portland. Her death sentence was finally signed by the Washington Treaty and, on 12 April 1922, she was paid off onto the disposal list, finally being broken up by Cox and Danks at Upnor on the Medway in 1923.
Walt left Orion on 21 January 1914 and then spent a few weeks in Devonport awaiting drafting to his next ship. This turned out to be HMS Caesar and he joined her on 18 Feb 14. On joining HMS Caesar he had moved from one of the most modern ships in the Royal Navy to one of the oldest, for Caesar was a pre-dreadnought battleship of the Majestic class first commissioned in 1898 and now serving with the 7th Battle Squadron of the Channel Fleet. She was armed with 4 x 12” breech loading guns disposed in two turrets, one forward and one aft, and like most pre-dreadnoughts she had a varied secondary armament comprising 12 x 6”, 16 x 12 pdr, and 12 x 2 pdr guns. She also had 5 x 18” torpedo tubes, four below the waterline and one above. In December 1914, after Walt had moved on, Caesar was detached from the 7th Battle Squadron to serve as Gibraltar guard ship with a secondary role as a gunnery training ship. The rest of the war was spent on the North America and the West Indies Station with some time in Bermuda in the gunnery training role, and conducting patrols in the Atlantic. During this period she also spent some time in Halilfax, Nova Scotia during 1915. After the war she relieved HMS Andromache as flagship of the Senior Naval Officer, British Adriatic Squadron at Corfu thus becoming the last British pre-dreadnought to serve as a flagshiop. In 1918 she went into dock in Malta and was refitted as a depot ship in which role she werved at Mudros in Greece, and in Port Said, Egypt. Her operational service ended in 1919 when she passed through the Dardanelles into the Balck Sea to serve as the depot ship for British naval forces engaged in operations against the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution. She therefore notched up another important “last” becoming the last British pre-dreadnought battleship to serve in an operational theatre overseas. She returned to Devonport in April 1920 where she was paid off and placed on the disposal list. On 8 November 1921 she was sold to a British firm for scrapping but she then suffered a great indignity for a ship of her era as the British firm sold her on to a German firm and, in July 1922, she was towed out of Devonport to be scrapped in Germany.
Walt left Caesar on 14 July 1914, one month before the outbreak of war, and this time there was no hanging around in Devonport waiting to be drafted as he joined his new ship the next day. The ship in question was another pre-dreadnought battleship, HMS Ocean and she was to prove a little more unlucky than his previous two – it is clear that she also formed the basis for the first of the two family legends described above. Ocean was a Canopus class pre-dreadnought armed almost identically to Caesar, although she was slightly newer having been launched at Devonport Dockyard on 5 July 1898 and commissioned on 20 February 1900. When Walt joined Ocean she must have been somewhat between “postings”. It’s a little hard to pin down, but my guess is that, when he joined her in July, she was still in Pembroke Dock in Wales where she had been serving as part of the 3rd Fleet. She wasn’t there for long though because, on the outbreak of war in August, she joined the 8th Battle Squadron of the Channel Fleet. Then, on 21 August, she was detached to Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland to act as guard ship and to serve in support of a cruiser squadron operating in the area. She left Ireland in September and proceeded to the Cape Verde-Canary Islands Station to relieve her sister ship HMS Albion. However she never got there as, before she arrived on station, she was re-assigned to the East Indies Station to support cruisers escorting convoys in the Middle East. She fulfilled a number of roles on the East Indies Station, serving as flagship of the squadron in the Persian Gulf and also serving in Suez to assist in the defence of the canal. On 3-4 February she operated in support of ground troops who fought off an Ottoman Turkish attack on the canal. In late February 1915, Ocean headed north from Suez to take part in Churchill’s monumental cock-up, the Dardanelles campaign. Things went well enough to start with – she took part in the bombardment of the forts at the entrance to the straits and sustained a few hits from Turkish artillery, although the damage wasn’t serious. Then, on 4 March, she gave gunfire support to the landings at Sedd el Bahr at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula. However, her time was rapidly running out – on 18 March she took part in the attack on the Narrows forts, in the course of which HMS Irrestible hit a mine in Erenkui Bay and was seriously damaged. Ocean was ordered to tow her out of the bay but ran aground while attempting to do so. She was able to free herself, but the shallow water combined with Irresistible’s list, meant that she was unable to take Irresistible in tow although she was able to rescue those members of her crew who were still on board. Irresistible was abandoned and later sank at around 1930hrs. While retiring from the area Ocean also struck a mine at around 1900hrs, her steering jammed and she listed 15º to starboard. She also came under artillery fire from the shore which, as well as causing further damage, prevented repairs from being undertaken on her steering gear. Fortunately she sank relatively slowly with minimal loss of life and destroyers were able to take off most of her crew, leaving her adrift and sinking. Later that evening, the destroyer Jed was ordered to enter the bay to sink Ocean and Irresistible with torpedoes to prevent them falling into Turkish hands, but neither ship could be found, both having sunk of their own accord without any "assistance" from Jed. So, I am pretty sure that the “ship that was torpedoed” in the family story as almost certainly Ocean and, rather than being torpedoed she was actually sunk by a mine – although I suspect that Walt himself would not have been all that interested in the subtle distinction between these two fates! What is interesting to me (particularly as a former member of an Army Record Office) is that his service record shows him leaving Ocean on the 8th March rather than the 18th (the day she actually sank). I don't know whether this discrepancy arises from some technicality of RN drafting procedures or whether it was simply the result of inaccurate record keeping and, of course, it’s unlikely that I can ever be certain of the cause. I am, however convinced that, given the family tale of him being torpedoed, and notwithstanding the date in his record, he actually was on board Ocean when she was destroyed.
So, with Ocean lying at the bottom of the Dardanelles, it was time for Walt to move on again! I presume that, as a survivor of a sinking, he would have been entitled to some leave and, certainly, his record shows him back in Devonport from 9 March (sic) to 1 July 1915. After that things get a little complex. It seems that, for the moment at least, his career on battlewagons was at an end and he was to become a “small ship” man, for his next ship is shown as Blake (Fury). Now HMS Fury was an Acorn class destroyer and, as it happens, HMS Blake was a former protected cruiser, converted to a depot ship in 1907 and, by 1915, serving as the depot ship for the 11th Destroyer Flotilla of the Grand Fleet. So it seems that, although he served on Fury, Walt’s administration would have been handled by the depot ship, Blake. Fury herself was built in in 1911 being launched from A & J Inglis’s Pointhouse Yard in Glasgow on 25 April that year. She was armed with 2 x 4” guns and 2 x QF 12pdr guns as well as 2 x 21” torpedo tubes. One point that’s worthy of note is that Fury was an oil fired ship, but there is no record of Walt qualifying on oil fuel until 1922, and all three of his previous ships had been coal burners. Still, I guess he must have picked up some transferrable skills along the way! Unfortunately I have been able to find out very little about the exploits of HMS Fury during the time Walt served on her.
In any case his time as a member of her crew was relatively short because, on 2 February 1916, he was moved to another destroyer, this time HMS Obedient, his admin being handled by the depot ship HMS Diligence. Diligence herself was interesting as she had been converted to the depot ship role from the civilian steamer SS Tabaristan built by D & W Henderson Ltd at their Meadowside shipyard on the Clyde in 1907. In 1916 she was stationed in Scapa Flow as the depot ships for the 12th Destroyer Flotilla. HMS Obedient, despite her initial “O” was actually an “M” class destroyer, built by Scotts of Greenock, launched in November 1915 and commissioned in February 1916. She was armed with 3 x 4” QF Mark IV guns, 3 x single 2pdr Mk II “pom poms”, and 2 pairs of 21” torpedo tubes. It was on this ship, and not HMS Warspite, that Walt served in the Battle of Jutland, the greatest naval battle of World War 1. The exact part played by HMS Obedient in battle is somewhat obscure but I have found one mention of her acting, along with HMS Faulknor, and HMS Marvel as the destroyer screen for the 6th Division of the 1st Battle Squadron (HMS Revenge, Hercules, and Agincourt). I believe that the story about his having served on board HMS Warspite when she was seriously damaged by German shells came about not because he actually was on board but because he witnessed the incident. I was also unable to find a photograph of HMS Obedient so the image shown is of her sister ship HMS Orpheus. Events following Jutland are unclear and I have no idea where the exigencies of wartime service took Walt after that, but I do know that he saw out the war on board Obedient, only leaving her in 3 February 1919.
Things become even less clear after February 1919 and from then until 25 January 1921 deatils of his service are obscure. I do know that on 4 April 1919 responsibility for his administration passed to HMS Theseus, another depot ship that, at the time, was serving in the Black Sea in support of operations against the Bolsheviks. It is likely therefore that Walt was still on destroyers – but whether her remained with Obedient or moved to another ship will probably have to remain a mystery.
There is no mystery, however, about his next ship because, on 25 January 1921, he joined HMS Delhi, a Danae class light cruiser. She was built by Armstrong Whitworth on the Tyne and was laid down on 29 October 1917, launched on 23 August 1918, and commissioned in June 1919. Her service between the wars was unremarkable although she was involved, during the Spanish Civil War, in rescuirng refugees from Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Valencia, in the course of that operation coming under aerial bombardment and artillery fire from Spanish Nationalist forces. She went on to serve with distinction throughout World War 2 and was finally scrapped in early 1948. When Walt joined HMS Delhi she had just completed a refit at Chatham Dockyard. On 1 February, under command of Captain F L Tottenham, Delhi sailed for Horta in the Azores to join the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron. She sailed from Horta for Ponta Delgado in the Azores and then “island hopped” to Funchal in Madeira, Tenerife, and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, then sailing to Gibraltar where she arrived on 12 March. She sailed from Gib on 17 March and arrived back in Plymouth on 21 March. By an eerie coincidence the latter part of that cruise was almost a mirror image of the Queen Elizabeth cruise that we took in April 2011 almost exactly 90 years later. I didn’t know that at the time and I find it quite strange, now, to know that I was following, for large parts of the voyage, in Walt’s footstep (well, in his wake at least!). Walt remained with Delhi until 1923 during which time she continued to serve with 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, becoming the Squadron flagship in February 1922. Delhi was armed (as built) with 6 x 6” Mk XII guns in single turrets, 2 x 3” QF high angle guns, and 2 x 2pdr AA guns. In 1942 she was substantially rebuilt for the Anti Aircraft role and, in 1948, she was scrapped at Cashmore’s yard in Newport, South Wales. However, by that time Walt had long moved on.
On 1 December 1923, following another short spell ashore at Devonport awaiting drafting, Walt joined what was to be the final ship of his Naval service. This was HMS Resolution, a Revenge class battleship dating from the period immediately following the Battle of Jutland. Resolution was armed with 8 x 15” guns disposed in 4 twin turrets – two (A and B) forward, and two (X and Y) aft. She carried a secondary armament of 12 x 6”, 8 x 4”, and 4 x 2 pdr pompoms as well as 16 x 40mm Bofors guns. She was built by Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company of Jarrow on the Tyne being laid down on 29 November 1913, launched on 14 January 1915, and commissioned on 30 December 1916. When Walt joined Resolution she had just completed a major refit in Portsmouth Dockyard during the course of which the funnel cap seen in the image that accompanies this section was fitted. This gave the ship a much more modern appearance than I had expected and, at first I thought that this was a photo taken during the course of World War 2 although, in fact, it was taken some time between the wars. On 10 January 1924, having sailed from Portsmouth to return to the Mediterranean, Resolution collided with the Royal Navy submarine L24 in the area of Portland Bill. It is believed that the submarine, completely unaware of the looming presence of Resolution, had attempted to surface in her path and was run down with the loss of 49 lives. Apparently those on board Resolution felt nothing more than a slight bump, and there was no significant damage to the battleship which, after a short inspection, resumed her voyage to the Mediterranean. Walt left the ship in August 1924, returning to Devonport where he was discharged at the end of his service on 24 September 1924. Resolution went on to serve throughout World War 2 finally being scrapped at Faslane on the Gairloch in Scotland in May 1948.
Anyone interested can access the Royal Navy record of service for K.16140 Stoker Walter Shaw here.