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Open Features: The Sinking Of H.M.S Warwick

Ken Holmes was serving as an Ord/Telegraphist on H.M.S.Warwick in 1944. Here he he brings a vivid account of what happened when the Warwick was attacked on Sunday, the 20th of February in that year.

I was in my mess at about 11.45 am when an explosion shook the ship violently and a cloud of dust fell from the overhead pipes that ran through the mess.

My first thoughts were to get my lifebelt and head for the upper deck. My lifebelt, which was the type that had to be blown up like a car innertube, was rolled up and hung on a hammock hook near the door. I grabbed the lifebelt and headed for the door.

The mess was on the starboard side of the ship and the only access to it was by a ladder that led upwards to a hatch which opened out onto the upperdeck aft of the forward superstructure. This ladder also served the ERA's mess which was on the port side of the ship.

I was first to the doorway of my mess but was beaten to the ladder by one of the ERA's. On looking up I could see some burning wreckage across the hatch top. The ERA.(I don't know his name ) went ahead of me and either he or someone on the upperdeck cleared the wreckage away. I proceeded on to the upperdeck to find oil, some of it burning, on the deck, seemingly spurting up somewhere near the funnel

The wireless office was at the rear of the forward superstructure and as I came on to the upperdeck I saw the P.O.Tel, who was my boss. He was shouting for people to go to their action stations. My station was in the HF/DF office in the stern of the ship. When I looked in that direction I could see that the stern was no longer there.

I was actually standing on the port side of the ship by the whaler and efforts were being made to lower it. Unfortunately burning oil had dropped into it and it was obvious that it would not float when it got into the water. I had by this time donned my lifebelt and was in the process of blowing it up. Seeing that the whaler was useless I moved over to the starboard side where efforts were being made to lower the motor-boat. This was also proving to be fruitless as it appeared that the lowering gear was jammed.

I was standing next to a P.O.who said, if I remember correctly,that it was the third time this had happened to him. As he said this the ship heeled over to port. I grabbed for the wire handrail that went round the ship. I was fortunate, as I got hold of it, but some of the others waiting by the rail didn't. They slid down the oily deck out of my sight.

I climbed over the rail and on to the side of the ship, which was now almost level. I slid down it and jumped off the the bottom of the ship into the water. I was fully dressed in overalls and wearing boots, but my lifebelt was inflated and I remembered that during my training I had been told that if such an emergency happened to me that I should hold my lifebelt down to prevent it striking me under the chin as I hit the water. This I did,and I arrived in the water amid a flurry of arms and legs belonging to the others who had jumped with me.

The water was icy cold and came as a bit of a shock, but my first thoughts were to swim away from the ship before she sank. pulling me down with the suction. There was a heavy swell on the sea and I found that I would go up on one rise, then down, but I didn't come up quick enough before the next rise and consequently that one came over my head. Half the time I was in the water I seemed to be under it. The oil which covered the top of the water was also a problem. I had to make sure that it didn't get into my eyes.

At first I could hear men shouting but from jumping into the water I never saw another soul. For all I knew I could have been the only survivor.

Having swum away from the ship as far as I thought safe I turned to look behind me. The bows of the Warwick were still above water and I could see a man sitting on the capstan on the forecastle. Who he was I don't know.

I was treading water or doing a bit of breast stroke whilst I looked around to see if any help was in view. I saw a destroyer heading our way. I began swimming towards it and I could see some of the crew lowering scrambling nets down the side. Then, just when I thought I was going to be saved, the destroyer sped away from me. To make matters worse, a few minutes later she started dropping depth charges, and, although I was a good distance from her, as each one exploded it was like being punched in the stomach.

I swam away to increase my distance from the explosions. After some time. I don't know how long, still not having seen any other person in the water, or the Carley floats which I later found had been launched, I sighted, on one of my upliftings on the swell what appeared to be three boats heading in my direction. I started to swim towards them.

At first I thought I had done too well as it appeared that I was going to be run down by one of them, but I adjusted my direction and found myself alongside one of them. I raised myself up in the water and shouted. There seemed to be no one on deck, but, as I shouted a man came out of the deckhouse. How he saw me I don't know as the water was covered with oil, and so was I.

He did see me though and he threw me a rope. I grabbed it gratefully and was dismayed to find that because of the oil it was sliding out of my hands. I promptly took a turn round my wrists and hung on.

My saviour must have been a very strong man because he hauled me up the side of the ship, with no help from me and threw me on to the deck. He said something to me in a language that I didn't understand and for a few moments I thought I was going to end up in a prison camp!

He realised that I didn't understand. In English he told me to go down below. I went down into a cabin where there was a roaring stove. I began stripping of my clothes. I couldn't do anything with my boots, which were of course wet through. A man came down and cut them off for me.

At that time there was no one else in the cabin and I stood over the blazing stove and was unable to feel the heat. I felt so exhausted that I got into a bunk and I must have blacked out. I was awakened by another survivor getting into the bunk still in his wet and cold clothes! This was quite a shock as I was in the nude and had just started to get warm.

I looked around and saw that there were a number of the Warwick's crew aboard but they were unrecognisable to me as they were covered in oil. I understood we were on our way to Padstow, but I had lost all track of time and I have no idea how long it took us.

On arriving at Padstow a member of the fishing vessel's crew gave me a pair of old trousers and an old blanket to go ashore in. I climbed up the ladder on to dry land and then realised how lucky I had been to be still be alive. I owed grateful thanks to the man who had hauled me up the side of his ship.

It appeared that most of the survivors had been landed by this time and we were directed to get into a lorry which was standing by and were transported to the R.N.A.S. at St.Merryn.

We were greeted by a P.O. with a basin filled with navy rum and given a cup full! It was only after that that I began to feel human again.

We were fed, kitted out in battledress, and given a bed for the night there, before being transported to the R.N.B. at Plymouth. There we went through the joining routine, were issued with a new kit and eventually sent on survivors leave.

*

Later on during his service Ken Holmes met an Australian girl in Sydney in 1945. She came to England and they were married in 1947.

They are still together.

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