Powerful account of life during war

Norman Mackay, bottom row, second to the right.
Norman Mackay, bottom row, second to the right.

With just under two weeks to go until Remembrance Day, the Gazette has published this powerful account of life in the Second World War, through the eyes of hero Norman Mackay, from Seahouses, who served in the Royal Navy during the conflict.

The story, below, was handwritten by Norman, at the age of 87, for his granddaughter Hannah Sophie Mackay, from Seahouses, in 2006, for a project she did at school.

Norman Mackay.

Norman Mackay.

Norman passed away on September 11, 2014, at the age of 95. Hannah, 18, wanted to share the story, because she thought it deserved to be seen by others and gives an insight into what life was really like during the Second World War.

Of the 26 letters in the alphabet, these are three which have caused more havoc, misery and grief than any other – WAR.

The biggest industry in the world is making weapons to kill, now brilliant scientists have produced nuclear bombs capable of destroying the world. Wicked inventions which it is to be hoped are reversed.

In the 1930s, a human monster, Adolf Hitler, came to power in Germany with hypnotic power over his people. Germany would conquer and rule the world. It cost millions of lives and years of terror and misery to stop this horrible ambition. War has no winners.

I was 20 years old when I joined the Royal Navy in 1940 and was directed to join HMS Royal Arthur, which was formerly Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Skegness, Lincolnshire.

With signal class 5214, I was 14 weeks there and in that time I had to learn Morse code, semaphone and flag signals. We were nicknamed Bunting Tosses and I was known as Bunts.

Also, we had drill marches to piped music – Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Some picnic, our feet were sore from marching on concrete roads and most of us were not used to wearing boots. After we had passed out, we were given our crossed flag badge to wear on our right uniform sleeve.

Goodbye Royal Arthur, next depot was Lowestoft. I chose Lowestoft as my father did in the First World War. HMS Europa was the minesweeping and patrol base for the smaller ships. We were billeted in private houses at Lowestoft, very nice, but very short, three days of home comfort and I was told to report to the railway station. From there I received a train ticket to Great Yarmouth, only a few miles away.

At Great Yarmouth, I spent a few days in the seaman’s mission as my ship HMS Star of Orkney was at sea. When it arrived back in harbour I went aboard, this was to be my home for the next 26 months. We had a crew of 16 when I joined, which was increased to 26 when I left.

It took quite a while to get adapted and gain my sea legs. The Star was only four years old and had been formerly fishing from Aberdeen, where it was built.

On my second trip out we were bombed by the Luftwaffe, this was not very nice with great spouts of water just too close for comfort, terrific noise and shrapnel flying about.

‘You will get used to it’, I was told, but it was not the sort of thing you get used to, it was part of life or death. Our task was to sweep the shipping channels and clear mines from what was the Great North Road of the East Coast Convoy route. Two convoys of ships travelled each way daily and we had two channels to take care of.

In stormy weather, many mines used to be breaking adrift and we had to dispose of them. Magnetic and acoustic mines were inventions of the devil and the war was in danger of being lost, ships were being sunk quicker than they could be replaced. It took a long time before an answer was found.

Our best result was on Maundy Thursday, 1942, and our finest hour – noon to 12.58pm, when the vibrating hammer sweep on our bow exploded 14 mines in the northbound shipping lane. We were going on leave, home, two days later and we were rewarded with two days’ extra leave.

Our area was from off Lowestoft to Sherringham, about a 50-mile stretch, known as E-boat Alley, because the German E-boats from Ymuiden in Holland used to come and play havoc with attacks on the convoy, especially at night-time.

On one occasion, we were nearing a night sweep finish point when an attack took place and four ships were sunk just behind us, we did not know the convoy was so close and were in danger of being run down by our own ships. This attack only lasted 20 minutes. The next day we were detailed to chart the wrecks, no doubt many lives were lost. Later, night sweepings were cancelled and we returned to day sweeping and attacks by the Luftwaffe instead of the E-boats.

Our Navy within a Navy lost over 400 ships and 13,000 sailors – one in five did not survive. The Royal Navy patrol service has a medal of its own, of which I own one, and a silver mine-sweeping badge.

My heart aches of the present wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. I said a prayer when the invasion of Iraq took place. Were all our efforts in vain? Will politicians ever learn? As I said, there are no winners.