NOSTALGIA WITH BOB HIND: Curse of the telegram: Dear Mrs Hall '“ your son is dead
Three weeks ago I wrote about the sinking of HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow, Orkney, on October 14, 1939.
The article was read on portsmouth.co.uk by a family from Nottingham who lost a relative, just a 17-year-old boy, when the battleship went down. It was his first ship.
Although not a local lad he was a Portsmouth Division rating and the family asked if I could mention him on these pages.
It was too late for last week’s remembrance weekend, but the story is so moving I have dedicated this page to him and all the other sailors of the Portsmouth Division who went down with their ships.
William Roy Hall was the second eldest of nine children of whom two survive.
He had always wanted to join the navy and he signed on in 1937 training at the boys’ establishment HMS Ganges, near Ipswich.
He was at this harsh and disciplined establishment for 18 months before he passed out as a Boy 1st Class in 1939.
His first draft was to the obsolete battleship HMS Royal Oak which had been launched in January 1914 and commissioned on May 1, 1916. A month later she saw her first action at the Battle of Jutland. In later life she was made flagship of the Second Battle Squadron based in Portsmouth.
She was paid off in December 1938. The following June she was recommissioned and left Portsmouth with a proud William on board.
She was meant to take a summer cruise to the Mediterranean but with war looming she was sent to Scapa Flow instead.
With concerns about the fleet being attacked, it dispersed but Royal Oak, considered too slow for modern warfare, remained. Her anti-aircraft guns were used for air defence.
On October 14 a German U-boat glided through submarine defences and torpedoes were fired. Four hit the once mighty ship.
The stokers’, Boys’ and Royal Marines’ messes were hit with huge loss of life, including William’s.
What it must have been like inside that dark ship with the sound of crashing bulkheads and smoke and flames few can imagine. And for a 17-year-old...
In all, 134 Boy sailors aged 16 and 17 were lost. In total 834 died.
William’s younger brother Jack followed him to Ganges a year after William joined. What his thoughts must have been when he heard the news cannot be imagined.
The day after the disaster, William’s mother Gertrude received a telegram from the Rear Admiral, Portsmouth Naval Barracks.
It was blunt and cold and recorded his regret at the loss of her son. However, if you consider the hundreds of telegrams of this kind that had to be sent, perhaps it is not surprising how curt they were.
A telegram delivery boy spotted during the war was always viewed with sadness and worry.
Those with men in the forces would watch as the boy approached hoping he would pass their house, but always looking to see where the telegram was delivered.
Mrs Hall must have dropped to her knees and wept on reading the terrible news about her young son. The rest of the family went into shock for many days.
Such was the fate of so many families of servicemen young and old, in the dark days of war. But dying so young must have made it so much harder for the families to take.
One consolation for the Hall family is that William’s brother Jack survived the war and ended his service a chief gunner.