Home Waters: My Grandfather’s War

By Maureen Storey

This article was published in the August 2014 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

As a child in east London my Sundays were spent visiting grandparents: in the morning while Mum was cooking Sunday lunch, Dad took my brother Terry and me to Homerton to visit his parents and then in the afternoon we all went to see my maternal grandparents in Clapton. However, despite these regular visits, my paternal grandfather, John Frederick Sole, has always been something of an enigma to me. Whilst Dad chatted away to his mum, grandfather would sit silently smoking in his armchair. About half an hour into the visit he would get up and announce that he had to pop out to buy a box of matches – a euphemism for his lunchtime pint – and that was the last we’d see of him that day. He very seldom spoke directly to either me or Terry and, as far as I can remember, I never had a conversation with him.
It wasn’t until I took up family history that I realised how little I knew about him. It could all be summed up in just a few lines. He was born in Hackney on 24 November 1893 to James and Jane (nee Chater) Sole. He had three sisters. He served in the Royal Navy during World War I. He married Kate Ridout on 30 September 1919 and they had one son and three daughters. He spent much of his life working as a stoker for the Metropolitan Water Board. And he died from pneumonia following a bout of bronchitis on 20 February 1964.
The one period of his life that it seemed that I would be able to learn more about was his time in the Navy and the results of my researches are detailed below.
I was surprised to find that he signed up before the outbreak of World War I and that the Navy wasn’t his first choice. The attestation papers for the London Regiment include an incomplete attestation for John, dated 3 Oct 1912. There’s no indication of why the attestation is incomplete. However, his height at the physical examination was given as just 5 ft 2½ in, so perhaps he was deemed too small (the minimum height for the Army at that time was 5 ft 3 in). Whatever the reason he didn’t end up in the Army, it seems he was determined to join one of the armed forces, as on 8 Jan 1913 John enlisted in the Royal Navy, signing on for a period of 12 years.
John did his basic training at HMS Pembroke, the naval shore base in Chatham, and in June 1913 he joined HMS St George, a destroyer depot ship then based in the Firth of Forth, as a stoker second class. He was promoted to stoker first class in the following January and moved to HMS St Vincent, a Dreadnought, on 1 Apr 1914. Both of these ships were coal-fired, so John’s primary task must have been shovelling coal (the sailors on oil-fired ships who regulate the flow of fuel to the engines are also called stokers). Pre-Dreadnought battleships steaming flat out were said to have used a ton of coal in less than half an hour, so stoking was a back-breaking job. It also required some skill, since coal that was incorrectly positioned in the coal box could cause a blowback that could incinerate the stoker. During John’s time aboard, which covered the period a few months either side of the outbreak of war, the St Vincent was part of the 1st Battle Squadron of the Home Fleet.
John remained on the St Vincent for seven months and was then moved to HMS Dee, a River Class torpedo boat destroyer, a posting that lasted almost two years. During this time the Dee served in home waters, first as part of the Scapa Flow Local Flotilla and then from August 1915 as part of the Seventh Flotilla, which was based in the Humber.
The move from a Dreadnought (19,488 tons, with a complement of 718) to the very much smaller River Class destroyer (535 tons with a complement of 70) must have been something of a culture shock for John. The River Class destroyers were larger and more solidly constructed than earlier destroyers and although they were somewhat slower (25 knots compared with 27–30 knots), their increased seaworthiness meant they were the Royal Navy’s first truly ocean going and effective torpedo boat destroyers. They were coal-fired with two engines and two shafts.
In 1914 the Dee’s armament consisted of four 12-pounder naval guns and two single tubes for 18-inch torpedoes. Its primary tasks during World War I were helping with counter-mining measures and anti-submarine patrols, both of which were vital to keep the sea lanes around the UK open for both military and commercial traffic. Clearing mine fields was a never-ending task, as they were replaced by the Germans almost as soon as they were cleared. In February 1915 Germany declared all waters around the British Isles to be a war zone and sanctioned unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant vessels, so that submarines became a major hazard for shipping of all kinds.
The posting to the Dee lasted until September 1916 when John was transferred to HMS Pembroke II, a shore establishment on the Isle of Sheppey. He remained there until he joined HMS Foyle, another River Class motor torpedo destroyer, on 27 February 1917. The Foyle was based in Dartmouth and like the Dee carried out anti-submarine and anti-mine operations, but it also helped to patrol the Dover Barrage and acted as a convoy escort in the English Channel.
The Dover Barrage was a defensive network designed to prevent enemy submarines passing through the narrowest section of the Channel. It consisted of a series of steel nets anchored to the sea-bed at varying heights, which stretched for 25 km across the Channel off Dover. The nets were surrounded by mine fields, also set at varying heights, and the whole area was patrolled by destroyers.
John’s time on the Foyle came to an abrupt and violent end on 15 March 1917 when, while off the Eddystone light, she hit a mine that blew her bow section off. The bow section sank immediately. It was initially hoped that the rest of the ship could be towed into Plymouth for repair, but she foundered while under tow. Of her crew of 70, 28 were killed and many more were injured including John, though in his case the injury wasn’t serious.
The mine that the Foyle hit had been laid only a few days before by the submarine UC-68, commanded by Hans Degetau. UC-68 was a UC II mine-laying submarine. She was commissioned on 17 Dec 1916 and in February of the following year was sent to Flanders to join the Flandern Flotilla. She sailed from Zebrugge on 10 Mar 1917 on a voyage that was scheduled to last no more than 10 days. Her orders were to lay mines off Plymouth and Dartmouth and then attack shipping on the English side of the Channel between Start Point and the Scilly Isles. She has been credited with 4 ‘hits’ during this voyage. On 12 March she torpedoed and sank the SS Tandil, which was carrying coal from Barry to Portland. Also on the 12th she attacked HMS Privet, a Q-boat patrolling in the Channel; the initial torpedo attack missed but UC-68 then surfaced and opened fire with her guns, seriously damaging the Privet. On 14 March the SS Orsova, a passenger liner that had been commandeered as a troopship, hit one of UC-68’s mines off of Eddystone. She was beached on the Cornish coast and eventually refloated and repaired. The submarine’s final victim was the Foyle on the 15th. UC-68 never returned from her voyage, although her exact fate is still under debate. The wreck of an unidentified UC II submarine with a heavily damaged bow lies off Dartmouth and it has been suggested this is her but this has still to be proven. How and when she was lost may be unknown but the cost in human lives of this her only sortie was 73 (46 on the ships she sank or damaged and all 27 of her own crew).
After the loss of the Foyle John spent 3 months at Pembroke II before joining another destroyer, the flotilla leader HMS Valhalla. The Valhalla was a new ship: she was launched in May 1917 and commissioned into the Navy on 31 Jul 1917. John’s records showed that he officially joined her crew on 1 Aug 1917. Flotilla leaders were designed to carry the flag officers for the flotilla and so at 1339 tons with a complement of 115 were larger than the River Class destroyers on which John had previously sailed. The Valhalla served with the 12th destroyer flotilla and was deployed in home waters on anti-submarine and anti-mine patrols.
I had always assumed that John stayed in the Navy until the end of the War so it came as a surprise to learn that he was discharged on 17 April 1918. On the transcription of his record that I got from the Ministry of Defence in 1992 it simply says he was discharged ‘as being invalided’, but the records that are now available on findmypast state that the discharge was due to neurasthenia, commonly known as shell-shock. The years of strain from hours spent confined below the waterline in seas that he knew to be riddled with mines and patrolled by enemy submarines together with the sinking of the Foyle must have taken their toll. Like most men of his generation, he seldom mentioned his wartime experiences but he did tell his daughter that when the ship was at action stations an armed officer always guarded the engine room hatch. The gun wasn’t to protect the men in the engine room – it was ensure that they stayed at their posts until ordered otherwise. No details are given in his records about how the shell-shock affected him or even if he received treatment for it; all we can know for sure is that it left him unable to continue his career in the Navy.
If John’s motivation for signing up in 1913 was ‘to see the World’, he must have been sorely disappointed as he spent the whole of his time in home waters. However, there are hints that he took pride in his service: he was known locally as Sailor Sole and when his son married in naval uniform in 1945 John insisted that the occupation of the groom’s father should be given on the marriage certificate as ‘Stoker, ex-RN’.