Amazing tale of sailor who survived two sinking ships

George Childs (centre) with two mess mates who were brothers and lived in the Waterlooville area. Both went down with their ships. This photo was taken while still under training at HMS St Vincent, Gosport.  Do you know them?
George Childs (centre) with two mess mates who were brothers and lived in the Waterlooville area. Both went down with their ships. This photo was taken while still under training at HMS St Vincent, Gosport. Do you know them?
Believed to have been taken on Whale Island, sailors celebrate the outcome of the riot.  (Robert James collection)

NOSTALGIA: The order that triggered a riot and made Royal Navy history

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To survive the sinking of one ship, torpedoed in Scapa Flow in the Second World War, would be enough for someone to call it a day. But leaving the Royal Navy at that time was not an option.

Yet to survive another sinking just 20 months later would make a man want to give up going to sea ever again – in any vessel.

George Childs as a petty officer some time just after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak

George Childs as a petty officer some time just after the sinking of HMS Royal Oak

This is what happened to the late CPO George James Childs, originally from Buckland, Portsmouth. George was the father of Ray Childs, now of Milton, and Ray told me of some of his father’s life in the navy from when he joined at HMS St Vincent in Gosport aged 16 in 1928 to when he finally retired some 29 years later.

George entered service at St Vincent on August 13, 1928 as a Boy II Class and was promoted to Boy I Class five months later. He was on his way.

On January 7, 1930 George joined his first ship, the battleship Emperor of India. He was not to serve with her for too long as she was decommissioned and sunk as a target ship in September 1931.

George went on to serve in many ships including Nelson, Dunedin and Resolution. He was also in barracks at HMS Excellent, Whale Island.

On June 7, 1939 George was drafted to the Revenge Class battleship HMS Royal Oak, nicknamed The Mighty Oak. Owing to her lack of speed she was to be used as air sea defence in Scapa Flow.

On the night of October 13, 1939 and just six weeks after war was declared, the obsolete battleship, now a quarter of a century old, was hit by several torpedoes from u-boat U47 commanded by Gunther Prien.

The ship went down in 13 minutes, taking some 833 men including 100 boys not yet aged 18 with her. Some of the 833 died in the sea and are buried in Lyness on the Island of Hoy.

One of the survivors was George, now an acting petty officer. How he managed to get away is not known as he rarely spoke of the incident.

After some leave, George was at Whale Island from November 1939 until April 1940, when he was made full petty officer and then drafted to HMS Fiji, a light cruiser.

In August 1941, Fiji left England to join a task force to take part in Operation Menace, the attack on Dakar. Before she managed to arrive she was torpedoed and had to return to England for repairs.

In April 1941 George was with the Fiji when assigned to the Mediterranean to assist in the relief of Malta. After this she was sent to assist in the battle of Crete, arriving on May 22,1941.

She was attacked from the air and a bomb exploded to her port side, blowing out her bottom plates causing her to list to port and then come to a complete halt.

A Junkers 88 then dropped its load, scoring three direct hits on the Fiji. The captain gave the order to abandon ship and at 20.15 Fiji rolled over and sank. A total of 241 sailors went down with her, although 523 were picked up later that night.

For the second time in his life, George managed to survive a sinking. One can only imagine what was going through his mind, wondering whether he would ever see his dear old Portsmouth again.

He did though and by August 1941 he was back in Portsmouth at Victory and Excellent. He was then sent to HMS Eaglet, a naval base near Liverpool. Then he was at HMS Nile, a naval base in Alexandria from January to May 1945.

Promoted to chief petty officer, George was released from the navy in December 1945. He then enrolled into the naval reserve and remained there until 1958.

In 1955 he took a job with the Post Office in Stanhope Road, Portsmouth but it never suited him. He then applied for and got the job as club steward at Troon golf course in Scotland. He remained there until his death in 1990.