Harry Semark: ‘I was lucky enough to work on every kind of warship’

Harry Semark.' 'Picture: Sarah Standing (141851-1421)
Harry Semark.' 'Picture: Sarah Standing (141851-1421)
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It’s hardly surprising that a man whose earliest memories were dominated by the sound of artillery should spend the rest of his working life fixing some of the biggest guns around.

For throughout the Second World War, when the Royal Navy needed a gun repairing – which was most of the time – they sent for Harry Semark and his legendary toolbox.

The tales of his career between 1939 and 1945 are outstanding enough. But as the centenary of the start of the First World War approaches, it is his clear recall of a small part of that world-changing conflict which makes him more remarkable.

There can be few people, if any, still alive in the Portsmouth area who can clearly remember the sound of gunfire from the Great War.

Harry can because he’s coming up for 101-and-a-half (as with children, that half is vital).

We chat in his sitting room in Heyshott Road, Southsea, surrounded by a lifetime of memorabilia, photographs and the two books he has written which have now become leading works of reference on the history of 20th century naval armaments.

So, in a nutshell this is a man, dedicated to serving his country and who lived to work, who saved two men from drowning (a third died) in three separate incidents; sold ice cream from a stop-me-and-buy-one bicycle with a cold store fixed over the front wheel when mass unemployment hit the nation; became a professional wrestler in his early 20s, and helped assemble the wings for Spitfires in the 1930s.

He then went on to ‘serve’ in more ships than any Royal Navy sailor could ever chalk up – more than 50 – and was one of the few civilians to witness one of the most momentous naval events in history.

But let’s start with those First World War memories.

Harry, born on March 25, 1913, in Strood, Medway, Kent, says: ‘I can clearly remember, during the latter part of the war my father taking me to watch a German night raid taking place over the Chatham area.

‘During it I remember the sky being pierced by army searchlights while Royal Artillery gunners kept up continuous gunfire.

‘Then, a few days later my dad took me to see a house in Gillingham which had been hit by a bomb.’

Of course, the Germans were after those Medway towns because of the Royal Navy dockyard at Chatham, a location which would play a crucial part in Harry’s later life.

About 25 years later the First World War reared its head again when he was based at Scapa Flow, Orkney, servicing guns on ships in the British Home Fleet and those based on shore positioned to defend that fleet from German air and seaborne attack.

‘Me and my toolbox had been sent on a secret mission,’ recalls Harry. ‘You never asked questions, never asked where you were going or why you were being sent. I just went.

‘But me and those tools ended up fixing two-pounder Mk VIII guns perched on the top of a cliff designed to attack German ships. There was nothing between me and the North Pole. It was very remote.

‘But on top of that cliff was a huge monument to Lord Kitchener.’

In June 1916 Kitchener, the man whose face dominated those famous ‘Your Country Needs You’ recruitment posters from the First World War, was the minister for war.

He had arrived in Scapa Flow to visit Admiral Jellicoe to hear his account of the Battle of Jutland. Kitchener left on board HMS Hampshire and sailed up the west coast of Orkney where she hit a mine and sank. Kitchener was killed.

Harry continues: ‘That monument overlooks the spot where Hampshire went down and after I’d finished my work on those guns I went to the nearest village and got talking to people who actually helped search for his body.

‘It seems strange now, nearly 100 years on that I met people who looked for the body of the man who won the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898.’

During the 1930s Harry worked in a factory making the wings for Spitfires and it was there he met Joyce, the woman who would become his wife and give him two children, Janet and Richard. It would be Joyce who would hold together the family while he spent the war years travelling the country fitting, fixing and servicing naval guns.

It was in 1939 that he joined the Royal Naval Armament Department at Chatham as a gun-fitter working on countless ships in the Royal Navy and allied fleets, repairing, maintaining and testing their guns at sea. He also fitted guns to the fishing fleet at Great Yarmouth – arms ‘for their self-protection’.

‘I was lucky enough to work on every kind of warship, from the 15-inch guns on battleships to cruisers, destroyers and corvettes down to those fishing boats and even motor launches. I worked on more than 50 warships and went to sea in most of them to test the guns were working properly.

‘Plus there was the work on shore-based artillery. I was never at home. Me and my toolbox travelled the country alone. I went wherever they sent me for six years, very rarely getting home.’

Two of his proudest moments have involved royalty and he recalls them as the picture of the Queen smiles down on him from the mantelpiece on the cover of his 100th birthday card.

In 1942 while working at Scapa Flow he met George VI who was visiting the fleet. Harry, a humble man, says: ‘I only had working clothes. They were covered in grease and paint and I only had a pair of sea boots and roll-neck jumper, so I didn’t think I was dressed properly to meet the King.

‘But a midshipman took pity on me. He and colleagues found me some proper shoes, trousers and a superbly-fitting brown jacket and I then felt I could stand in front of the King.’

His second royal meeting came in 2001 at the opening of Explosion! museum at Priddy’s Hard, Gosport.

Harry, who had moved to Portsmouth more than 45 years earlier to work at the naval arms depot at Elson, Gosport, retired in 1978 but then started work on his definitive work of navy armaments The Royal Naval Armaments Depots of Priddy’s Hard. This also dealt with the Bedenham, Elson and Frater depots and covered the centuries 1768 to 1977. His expertise was used extensively to set up the museum which traces the history of naval firepower.

‘The museum was opened by the Duke of York and I was presented to him. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

‘For a 101-year-old, I’ve not done badly, eh?’ George asks with a twinkle in his eye. ‘For a mere civilian, who was never in the navy, it’s been a fantastic life. I’ve been a very lucky chap.’