Seventy years have passed since Jean Winter’s father died aboard HMS Hood – but there hasn’t been a day since when she hasn’t thought of him.
Jean was celebrating her sixth birthday on May 24, 1941, when she was suddenly confronted by the awful news that changed her life.
Along with 1,414 fellow crew members, her father, Petty Officer Frederick Ward, was killed when his ship was sunk by the Bismarck in the Atlantic.
‘It has been with me all my life,’ says Jean, now 76, of Fifth Street, Fratton, Portsmouth.
‘I can remember clearly what happened on the day he died. My family were on a break in South Queensferry in Scotland and my father went back to work two days before I turned six.
‘On my birthday my mother took me to the pictures as a treat, and we were watching the film when halfway through a message came up on the screen asking her to come to the foyer.
‘She told me to stay put, but I followed her out of the cinema. I was standing behind my mother when my uncle handed her a telegraph and said “It’s Fred, he’s gone”.
She adds: ‘Although I was only six, I knew who Fred was and I knew what that meant.
‘I started crying and making such a noise that they turned the cinema lights on. And when we got home my mother had to give me some brandy to calm down and put me to bed. It was the worst day of my life.’
But in the years since, Jean hasn’t shied away from what happened because she is deeply proud of her father and his ship.
‘What happened still upsets me sometimes and I think about it often,’ she says.
‘My house is full of pictures of the Hood and pictures of my father. I remember him being very strict, he didn’t suffer fools, but I absolutely adored him. I just wish I’d known him better.’
The Hood was the largest ship in the world when it was built in 1920 and during the Second World War it remained the navy’s most feared warship.
Jean says: ‘Over the years the memories dim and it’s what people tell you that becomes more significant.
‘I know that the Hood was my father’s pride and joy, it was his second ship and he couldn’t have been more pleased to be serving on her.
‘If he had to go down on any ship, he would have been glad it was the Hood. He was very proud to have served on her and all of the men said the same.’
Donald Stevens was 10 when his father, Stoker Petty Officer Arthur Stevens, was also lost in the tragedy.
He shares Jean’s view that, at the time of its sinking, there was no ship to compare to the Hood. In a letter my father told us not to worry,’ says the 80-year-old, from Northwood Road, Hilsea.
‘He said he was sailing in the safest ship in the world. The Hood was known for being absolutely impregnable, but the Bismarck got very lucky.
‘I can remember seeing the news come in on the BBC, and I knew my father and two of my uncles were serving on board. So I just went and sat under the kitchen table. It was a shock for everyone, the entire city was stunned.’
He adds that there was hardly a family in Portsmouth that wasn’t affected in one way or another.
He says: ‘Before he died my father told my mother not to let me join the navy. Because back then if you lived in Portsmouth either you worked in the dockyard, or you joined the navy. So I went to work in the dockyard.
‘In that way it affected my whole life, and the lives of so many other people.’
Today at 11am there was due to be a small remembrance service at Portsmouth War Memorial to commemorate the brave sailors who lost their lives 70 years ago.
It is held every year and Jean always attends with her family, standing alongside others whose loved ones were taken on that fateful day.
This year even suffering a minor stroke couldn’t stop her mourning her father.
‘It is always a very poignant occasion,’ she says.
‘I can’t believe that 70 years have gone by. Every year there are fewer and fewer of us to mourn the men of HMS Hood, but we do it just the same. I’m very lucky to be there this year, but I am determined to keep going because I think it is so important to remember them.’
And remember them she does. Every year since May 24, 1941, Jean’s birthday has never really been a day of celebration.
But she believes remembering what happened to the Mighty Hood and her father is the best tribute she can pay them.
She says: ‘Every year that film about it comes on TV and I tell myself I’m not going to watch it. But every year I always seem to switch over just at the moment when the Hood begins to sink. It always makes me cry – but I have to watch it, to keep the memories alive.’