Friday 11 November 2016

An Ordinary Hero

Ordinary Seaman Jack Dorrington (Dorrington family collection)

On this Remembrance Day, it is fitting to publish the story of one of the many hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women who served their country during the Second World War. Happily, Jack Dorrington, the subject of this article survived the war to lead a long and happy life in peacetime but we should also remember the many thousands who were not so lucky and who made the ultimate sacrifice. The piece below is the result of the sort of typical family history research that we are able to undertake. If you're interested in learning more about one of your wartime ancestors, please contact me either via the main website or by leaving a comment below.

Jack Dorrington’s story in the Royal Navy is similar to many of those citizen sailors, soldiers and airmen who served in the Second World War. Reginald Jack Dorrington was born in Southwark in 1924 and was a young man who like many others found himself suddenly transplanted from civilian life into something that must have seemed very alien to him – a new life of training, obeying orders and overseas travel into a war zone. What is remarkable about Jack and all of these reluctant warriors is that they so readily adapted and to paraphrase a contemporary saying “kept calm and carried on” with their lives.

His introduction to the Royal Navy would be familiar to any new entry to the Service, then or now, as it began at HMS Raleigh, a Shore Establishment or ‘Stone Frigate’ at Torpoint in Cornwall. This establishment was commissioned in 1940 to provide basic training to new entries into the Navy, a role which continues to this day. Jack was a member of Class 93 from 16 June 1943 and due to the exigencies of wartime, he received a very basic fourteen days training, in which he would have been given aptitude tests, learned drill, weapon training and basic aspects of seamanship as well as something of the structure of the Royal Navy. It is interesting to note that today, in peacetime, the equivalent induction into the Service and basic training takes ten weeks, so Jack and his wartime shipmates had ten weeks’ worth of training crammed into fourteen days!

On arrival at HMS Raleigh, Jack was allocated a Service Number, which like everything in HM Forces, has a meaning and is not just a random collection of letters and numbers. He was given the number JX 566902. The letter ‘J’ signified that he was to be trained as a member of the Seaman & Communication Branch (as opposed to Fleet Air Arm, Stoker, or Cooks & Stewards Branch), meaning that he would be involved either as a Signalman, Radar Operator, Gunner, or any seaman’s duty ‘above decks’ rather than in the Engine Room, for example. The letter ‘X’ signified that he was on the post-1925 basic pay scale, which at that time amounted to the princely sum of 2 Shillings (10 pence) per day for an Ordinary Seaman, rising to 4/3 (about 22 pence) per day for an Able Seaman with six years’ service. Even the number itself told a story; by 1943, the original six-figure sequence of numbers begun in 1925 at 125001 was beginning to run out due to the massive wartime expansion of the service, so from 1 April 1943, a new sequence starting at 500000 was instigated, which instantly told administrators and paymasters that a rating in this sequence of numbers was a ‘Hostilities Only’ engagement, or ‘Hostile Ordinary’ as the regulars nicknamed them. This service number would remain with the serviceman for his entire career and would be used for pay, welfare and disciplinary records. It was probably during his time at Torpoint that Jack acquired a nickname and being a six footer, it was almost inevitable that he would become known as ‘Lofty’ from this point onwards during his Royal Navy service.

Jack (top, second from right) and HMS Raleigh shipmates (Dorrington family collection)

His basic training completed, Ordinary Seaman Dorrington as he was now officially known, was allocated a Port Division, effectively a home barracks, which in his case was Chatham. The letter ‘C’ was therefore added as a prefix to his service number which now read C/JX 566902. Other prefixes regularly in use were ‘D’ for Devonport, ‘P’ for Portsmouth and ’L’ for Lee-on-Solent Fleet Air Arm ratings. Upon arrival at Chatham, Jack was based at HMS Pembroke, the name for the barracks at the Naval Base, where he would doubtless have received further training before being drafted to his first ship, the frigate HMS Lawford, then building at the Boston Navy Yard, USA. It hasn’t been possible to ascertain from his Service Record exactly what Jack’s specialization was but given his service number and looking at the types of vessels he served in, it is highly likely that he was either a Radar or a Sonar (at that time in the RN called ASDIC – an acronym for the fictitious Anti-Submarine Division Indication Committee) Operator, or perhaps a lookout – all extremely responsible positions for a young lad straight out of basic training.

Reaching the USA could be a nightmare journey for many servicemen, often being allocated to a slow and overcrowded troop ship in an equally slow moving convoy through U-Boat infested waters. Jack however, was one of the more fortunate individuals, being transported across the Atlantic in the Cunard liner RMS Queen Mary, converted into a troop ship and therefore with fairly basic accommodation but which had the saving grace of being fast – too fast in fact for a submerged U-Boat to touch – so that any discomfort and overcrowding would be short-lived. Jack was on Voyage TA66, which sailed from the Clyde on the evening of 29 September 1943 and arrived at New York City just over five days later, on the morning of 5 October 1943. Upon arrival in New York, a welcome sight would have been that of a US Navy Paymaster on the quayside, whose job was to present ten dollars to each British sailor arriving in the USA. The exchange rate at this time was around four dollars to the pound, so this would have represented a small fortune to the poorly paid British servicemen. The reason for this generous act was that the cost of living in the USA was higher in comparison to the UK, so it was designed to make life easier for the lads when buying drinks and food ashore, which would have been difficult, if not impossible on their low Royal Navy rates of pay.

RMS Queen Mary in her wartime guise as a troopship (IWM)

An overnight train journey from New York to Boston then beckoned for the young sailors. Upon arrival in Boston, the next stop was at Fargo Barracks, where the seamen would be accommodated until such time as their ship was ready for them. Fargo Barracks was a vast complex in the centre of Boston that had begun life as a wool warehouse but which had now been requisitioned by the US Navy as their Induction Centre for the crews destined for the many frigates being built at the nearby Boston Navy Yard at Charlestown. The barracks had a reputation for plentiful supplies of excellent quality food, which was in sharp contrast to the rationing back home in England. Some of the young sailors were able to lodge with local Boston families rather than stay in the huge barracks. Jack was one of those selected to do so and recalled being fussed over by a kindly local family anxious to do their bit for the war effort. The lads also had free access to cinema and theatre tickets, with every effort made to ensure that these youngsters, most of whom were on their first ever overseas trip, felt welcome in their new surroundings far away from home. Of course, the British sailor enjoys his beer and there were plenty of bars for them to sample, although some of these were deemed strictly ‘off limits’ to the British, being considered home territory to US Navy men. Some fierce fights between the sailors of the two allied nations were recorded as a result of unsuspecting (or foolhardy) British tars entering an 'American' bar. One of Jack's tasks at this time was to be part of a squad that collected a member of Lawford's crew that had drunk too much in order to return him to his ship.

Whilst here, the ratings and junior officers would receive further training from US Navy instructors in connection with the layout and equipment of their new ships. This training was of a high standard and during his time in Boston, Jack learned how to drive, although whether this was part of his official training, or something done to relieve the boredom is not clear.

The Ship's Company moved aboard HMS Lawford at the Navy Yard on 30 October 1943 shortly before she was commissioned on 4 November, after which the new frigate would have conducted further trials and training. Some minor defects must have come to light during these trials, as Lawford was back in shipyard hands from 7 to 12 November 1943, with the crew back in shore accommodation.  The men finally moved on board permanently on 13 November and following further trials and a basic working-up exercise, HMS Lawford sailed at 14:30 on 5 December 1943, in company with her sister ship HMS Kingsmill, on passage to Liverpool. The Commanding Officer of the Lawford, Lieutenant Commander Sydney Ayles RNR, was the Senior Officer and therefore had overall responsibility for the two ships.

HMS Lawford at Liverpool in 1944 (IWM)

Both ships were ‘Captain’ Class Frigates, designed primarily for anti-submarine convoy escort work but these two vessels had been earmarked for conversion into Headquarters Ships for the forthcoming Normandy invasion, so their usual anti-submarine training at Bermuda was omitted, which was to have repercussions later on the voyage to the UK. All ships of the class were named after famous Captains and Admirals of the Royal Navy, mostly from the Nelson era and HMS Lawford was no exception, being named after Captain John Lawford, commander of HMS Polyphemus at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

It is hard to imagine a tougher initiation for the embryonic sailors as that which befell those aboard HMS Lawford, for two days after sailing she ran into a Force Nine gale and by 22:30 on 7th December, she was 'hove to' with the ship’s bows heading into the wind at reduced speed in order for the frigate to ride out the storm without causing serious damage to the ship or endangering it’s safety. The conditions on board at this time do not bear thinking about and many of the men would have been wishing for the warmth and comfort of their Boston lodgings once again!

The ship resumed passage at 08:10 the following morning but there was some further excitement on the 10th December when a radar contact was reported at 20:11 at a range of six and a half nautical miles. Four minutes after initial radar contact, a German U-Boat was then sighted on the surface ahead of the two frigates. The submarine spotted the two ships closing in and dived at 20:22, by which time the range had reduced to around two miles. The Sonar crews were obviously well trained as contact was held despite the poor weather but the depth charge attacks can only be described as shambolic, with the poorly trained novice depth charge supply teams only managing a sporadic supply of depth charges up to the decks. At this point, Ayles the CO of Lawford, decided on a ‘Hedgehog’ attack. The Hedgehog was a forward throwing weapon which fired charges ahead of the ship designed to explode on contact with a submarine’s submerged hull. However, just as Ayles was about to open fire, sister ship HMS Kingsmill crossed the bows of the Lawford, inadvertently placing herself in range of the Hedgehog projectiles, thus forcing the attack to be aborted. By this stage, at 22:41 on the 10th, the weather was closing in again and the decision was taken to abort the attack for fear of the two frigates having to 'heave to' once more and thus leaving them potentially sitting targets for the submarine. The decision to proceed was vindicated because by 00:45 on 11th December, the gale had increased to Force Ten with the ships 'hove to' once again and Ayles was unable to follow orders received from C in C Western Approaches instructing him to return to the search for the submarine. The weather began to moderate by 07:20 on the 12th and following amended orders from Western Approaches Command, the two frigates resumed their passage to England.

The two ships arrived off the Liverpool Bar Light Vessel at 08:00 on 14th December and were alongside at Gladstone Dock a few hours later, from whence they were immediately sent to the Cammell Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead for conversion into their Normandy role. Christmas Leave was given and most of the ship’s companies were paid off to be transferred to other vessels. Jack was one of those selected to remain with the ship, which suggests that he had acquitted himself well in his duties and was someone who would be required in the ship’s new role. This lends further credence to the theory that he was a radar or sonar operator, some of the few people to have come out of the U-Boat debacle with credit. The conversion entailed fitting additional accommodation for the extra staff officers to be carried, an enhanced radar outfit and additional radio communications, with the close-range anti-aircraft armament being considerably strengthened by fitting an extra sixteen 20mm Oerlikon cannons at the expense of one of the three inch guns, which were of limited value in any event.

Whilst undergoing her post-refit trials, two merchant ships collided in the River Mersey during thick fog and caught fire. HMS Lawford approached to give assistance and her motor boat crew did what was described as “magnificent” work in rescuing some of the crews of the two ships, including going right into a patch of burning oil to pick up men from the water. A proper work-up programme then ensued which was completed by the end of May 1944, at which time it would be fair to say that the crew of Lawford were an efficient and fully trained unit. The work-up complete and her ship’s company at the peak of training, HMS Lawford sailed from Portsmouth for the Normandy invasion beaches on 6 June 1944, under the command of Lieutenant Commander MC Morris RN. She was escorting ten former ferries carrying Canadian assault troops for ‘Gold’ Beach.

Her role on D-Day was that of the Command Ship of Captain AF Pugsley RN, initially co-ordinating the landing of the troops on J1 Sector of ‘Gold’ Beach but who was also nominated to be in command of all patrol activity off Normandy following the invasion. All went well at first but on D+2, disaster struck when she was hit by an Hs 293 Glider Bomb dropped by a Ju88 aircraft, which seemed to appear as if from nowhere, thus demonstrating that even with the enhanced radar protection on offer, the fleet was still vulnerable to attack from low flying aircraft penetrating beneath the radar.

Hs293 Glider Bomb (Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin)

The ship broke in two and sank inside ten minutes, with 26 men being killed, who were mainly engine room ratings trapped below when the missile struck. A total of 8 officers (including her CO) and 210 ratings were rescued by two minesweepers and returned to the UK. Royal Navy records rather confusingly refer to these glider bombs as ‘aerial torpedoes’ and the records for HMS Lawford are no exception but the Hs293 was actually a radio controlled ‘ship busting’ bomb – an early form of guided missile with a warhead of over 1,000 kilograms. Not surprisingly, most vessels hit by these weapons were either sunk or damaged so severely as to be beyond repair.

Jack was above decks when the missile struck and was thus able to quickly comply with the ‘Abandon Ship’ order but being a non-swimmer, his troubles were just beginning. Wearing heavy sea boots, greatcoat and steel helmet, he was hardly equipped for buoyancy and soon found himself struggling to remain afloat. Jack recalled trying to grab hold of shipmates, being told to “Let go of me, Lofty” on numerous occasions before eventually being hauled into a small boat, probably from one of the rescuing minesweepers. Jack was unceremoniously dumped into the bottom of the boat and soon found himself underneath a pile of men as fellow survivors were thrown into the boat on top of him. Jack had swallowed a lot of seawater but the weight of the other men on top of him forced him to be sick, thus probably speeding his recovery.

Royal Navy ratings repairing buildings in London damaged by V-1 attacks (IWM)

In common with all shipwrecked Royal Navy personnel, Jack was given seven days survivor’s leave and arrived home in the clothes he was wearing when he jumped into the sea, plus a blanket wrapped around him for good measure. On his return to barracks at HMS Pembroke on 16 June 1944, Jack was promoted to Able Seaman, which is another indication that he had done good work aboard HMS Lawford. He was based at barracks until 4 September 1944 after which time he was allocated as a member of the ‘London War Party’ from 5-13 September. London had been under attack from V-1 Flying Bombs from 13 June until early September 1944 and it had been decided to deploy members of the services, including many of those whose peacetime jobs had been in the building trade, to assist in repairing some of the worst of the bomb damage. It hasn’t been possible to find out exactly what work Jack was doing at this time but the IWM has documented some of the work in a series of photographs which give us a fair idea.

Destroyer Depot Ship HMS Wolfe (IWM)

Following the end of this work, Jack was drafted to HMS Dolphin at Gosport on 16 September 1944. This was another shore establishment and was until 1999 the home of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. Jack’s Service Record shows that he underwent submarine training here, which would have included escape training. The current Submarine Escape Training Tank dates from 1954 but similar training was given in wartime, designed to simulate escaping from a submerged submarine using breathing apparatus and other life-saving equipment. On completion of his submarine training, Jack was drafted on 29 October 1944 to HMS Adamant, the submarine Depot Ship for the 4th Submarine Flotilla, based at Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). So far, it has not been possible to ascertain how Jack reached Trincomalee from the UK, but he would almost certainly have taken passage in a troop ship, or perhaps on board another Royal Navy ship taking up position on that station.

Jack (second from left) and shipmates aboard HMS Wolfe (Dorrington family collection)

Jack was based aboard Adamant only until the end of 1944, being transferred on 1 January 1945 to HMS Wolfe, another submarine Depot Ship, this time for the 2nd Flotilla, also based at Trincomalee. The role of the Depot Ship was basically to provide port, repair and rest facilities for submarines and their crews whilst serving away from normal port facilities – in other words a home away from home. The life on board a Depot Ship would have been quite routine for most of the time, probably not a bad thing considering the fate of Jack’s previous ship but just occasionally there does seem to have been some excitement, as the log of HMS Wolfe records several air raid warnings as well as a loud explosion outside the harbour entrance in January 1945.

On 10 September, with the war against Japan over, Jack was assigned as part of the passage crew of the submarine HMS Torbay which was returning home to the UK to be placed in reserve and eventually scrapped. Torbay was a ‘T’ Class submarine commissioned in January 1941 and had fought a distinguished war, firstly in the Mediterranean, where her CO, Lieutenant Commander Anthony Miers had won the Victoria Cross for his actions in sinking enemy troop transports. Miers was later transferred from Torbay following allegations from fellow officers and crew members that he had ordered them to machine gun enemy survivors in the water. Whilst Miers never attempted to deny the allegations, no further action was ever taken against him.

HMS Torbay (IWM)

Torbay had enjoyed continued success against the Japanese in the Far East and had sunk several transport vessels as well as a patrol boat. The battle weary submarine sailed for the UK on 10 September 1945 via the Suez Canal and arrived at Gosport on 22 October following an uneventful passage. She was later moved to Briton Ferry in South Wales and it appears that Jack formed part of the crew which delivered the submarine to the scrapyard located there on 16 December 1945. He was once again drafted to HMS Pembroke at Chatham from the following day, when he would no doubt have been granted Christmas leave at home for the first time since 1943.

On 14 February 1946, Jack was drafted to HMS Vigilant, a ‘V’ Class Destroyer at that time serving as an Anti-Submarine Warfare training vessel based at Londonderry in Northern Ireland. His service in the Royal Navy was by now drawing to a close and he was only on board Vigilant until 3 April 1946, when he was once again based at Chatham for a few weeks. Jack’s final draft was to HMS Lynx, a shore establishment for Coastal Forces at Dover, where he was based from 25 April to 17 September 1946.

Jack Dorrington was demobbed back to civilian life on 17 September 1946 but old habits formed during his service in the Royal Navy appear to have died hard, as he continued to enjoy a daily tot of rum for the rest of his life. In later years, Jack and his wife Elsie also became regular devotees of cruises aboard liners such as the Canberra and Oriana, so the nautical life must have held a lasting appeal. Jack passed away in 2015 aged 91, one of the many 'ordinary heroes' who helped defeat Hitler as well as Japanese tyranny and to whom we owe so much.

I am indebted to the Dorrington family and especially his grandson and close friend of mine, Sam, for allowing access to Jack’s photographs and for providing many personal anecdotes.

Published Sources:

The Captain Class Frigates in the Second World War - Donald Collingwood, Leo Cooper - 1998

Unpublished Sources:

Dorrington family reminiscences
RMS Queen Mary log extracts - National Archives BT 380/1202
HMS Lawford log extracts December 1943 - National Archives ADM 217/313
HMS Lawford report on sinking 8 June 1944 - National Archives ADM 267/117
HMS Wolfe log extracts January-July 1945 - National Archives ADM 53/122516-122522
HMS Torbay log extracts September-October 1945 - National Archives ADM 173/19946-47

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