-H.M.S. Hood Crew Information-
I Was There! Where? The Autobiography of Alec Kellaway
by Alec Kellaway
Updated 06-May-2014

We are delighted that H.M.S. Hood veteran and H.M.S. Hood Association member, Alec Kellaway, has been generous enough to allow us to publish the complete text of his book, 'I Was There! Where?' which he wrote and typed himself. Alec passed away in March 2020 and is sorely missed.

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H.M.S. Skate

H.M.S. Skate
Commissioned: 1916
Two turbine engines 27,000 HP
Top speed: 36 knots
Fuel capacity: 300 tons
Length: 265 feet
Beam: 26 feet
Draught: 10 feet
Displacement: 90 tons
Armament: 1 X 4” gun, 1 x 12pounder plus several anti-aircraft guns
Also many depth charges
A crew of 98 plus
I joined her September 1943 and left December 1944

Arriving at Portsmouth I did my joining routine and was sent on seven days leave. It was not long before I was drafted to H.M.S. Skate, a WW1 destroyer being refitted at Hull. Skate was being converted from being a destroyer to an escort vessel. My feelings about the draft were very apprehensive because here was I was a confirmed Stoker PO going to a ship where I would be carrying out duties in charge of boiler rooms of which I had very limited knowledge. In fact my time on operational boiler work was about two - three weeks as a stoker in H.M.S. Cossack in 1940.

On arrival at Hull with Bogey Knight another Stoker PO we found in the dockyard a scruffy looking three-funnel destroyer nearing completion of her refit. The next day the Chief Stoker who had been on the Skate for quite a few years introduced us to the Warrant engineer in charge. This introduction was not at all welcoming as Bogey had just left service in submarines and had limited experience in boiler room operations and being senior to me saw our engineer first. When it came to my presentation on being told of my definite lack of experience the engineer nearly exploded saying that I was no use to him, he hastily departed probably cursing his supposedly misfortune.

After a few days the other Stokers PO arrived and it was soon realised that I was the third in seniority and therefore when at sea would be in charge of the regulating boiler room. This entailed, that no matter how many of the three boilers were in use it was my responsibility when on watch to maintain the correct steam pressure. Now the Skate had two boiler rooms; 0ne with two boilers and one single boiler room

Each boiler had its own funnel, this was a different layout to the Cossack which had three separate boiler rooms with two funnels. The Skate’s layout caused quite a problem which I shall describe later.

To get back to the early days on Skate and my dramatic initiation to boiler room watch keeping. It was not long before we were due to proceed on trials and I was on watch in the double boiler room preparing to get up steam pressure on one of the boilers to be connected into the steam system. The steam pressure on my boiler on reaching equal pressure with the other boiler was given instructions to open the main stop valve. As the valve was slowly opened the steam packing around the valve gland blew out. Fortunately it was possible to close the valve before anyone was injured though this meant that the boilers had to be closed down for the valves to be re-packed with more suitable packing. This meant that the trials were cancelled for the day, which brought my work experience to a halt.

A few days later after the repairs had been completed it was decided to do the trials. I was in the double boiler room when the Skate was making her way through the lock gates, when suddenly thick black smoke poured out of the two forward funnels dropping down on to the bridge covering the CO and many others on the bridge, making them look like black minstrels. In the meantime I am definitely trying to eliminate the black smoke with not much success. However the Chief Stoker came into the boiler room and after a while it was found that a fuel valve was not closed properly. When this was shut things returned to normal. The Skate did her trials and we returned to Hull to await our sailing orders. I had expected an enquiry to be held regarding the black smoke but everything passed as normal though the personnel on the bridge were said to be in a sorry state from the smoke, not from its blackness but the taste of sulphur in the air. Anyhow I had my first experience in sailing in charge of boilers and except for the smoke episode everything went by the book.

To get back to the problem of having two boilers in one boiler room, it’s to do with keeping clear funnels. NO SMOKE UNLESS ASKED FOR. To ensure that no smoke is made mainly requires that the crude oil to the sprayers is at the right temperature and there is correct air supply to allow perfect combustion. This was very hard to achieve in the double boiler room as the air being drawn into the boiler room was not getting evenly distributed between the two boilers. One boiler was getting more air than the other. This could be regulated by having less sprayers in use on one boiler than on the other. Experience in the operation of sprayers was the only way which could keep the funnels clear. Should the Skate be required to get up speeds of more than thirty knots with all three boilers in use the after boiler would take control of steam regulating allowing the two forward boilers to keep sprayers on with out making smoke. Any adjustment of steam control being done by the after boiler. However when getting up to top speed smoke problems did occur. It was said that when the Skate was steaming at full power she was very patriotic as from one funnel sparks were flying – Red- from another funnel white smoke was seen – White – and from the other funnel black smoke – Blue.

By now we had our orders to go to Londonderry in Northern Ireland, which was to be our operating base. Our main duties were to escort merchant ships to Iceland and part Arctic convoys. The Skate would leave Moville to accompany merchant ships from the Clyde area to Reykjavik, where the merchant ships would join convoys to Murmansk. We at times would go part way with the convoy but as we had limited fuel we would return to Reykjavik refuel and then back to Londonderry. This procedure was done many times.

Now the Skate had been launched in 1916 as an (R) Class Destroyer and at 900 tonnes was a small ship more prepared for North Sea work than the arduous duties encountered in the North Atlantic where rough and mountainous seas seemed to be ever present. On our trips back and forth the vicious seas we encountered cause many problems. On one journey sea water leaked into the fuel tanks and suddenly all the boiler sprayers went out. There was not a flame on any boiler. Steam pressure was dropping and the engine speed decreasing causing the ship to wallow in the heavy sea. After a while oil was brought into use and we carried on with our journey. On another occasion quite the reverse happened, oil got into the boiler feed waters tanks and in the boiler water gauge glass a measure of oil was appearing on top of the water level. This was a big problem but emergency action soon sorted the problem out. On this occasion we had to enter dockyard hands for boiler cleaning and water tank inspection and repairs.

During all this time my experience in my duties was improving. It could be said that every emergency procedure in the stoker’s manual was used during my time on the Skate, she completed my education. Twice we had fires in the boiler rooms which could have developed seriously but for the swift action of the engine room staff. The fires were started because during Skate’s refit her boiler room bilges had not been properly cleaned. If one looks back at Skate’s early days she was built as a destroyer her armament consisting of four 4” guns and torpedo tubes. During her conversion to an escort vessel three of the guns were removed along with the torpedo tubes. This left the Skate an unbalanced ship requiring cast iron ingots to be placed in the bilges under the boilers to ensure her stability at sea. It would appear that before the ingots were placed into the bilges these bilges had not been properly cleaned and oil was at the bottom. During normal working in the boiler rooms water from the steam drains enters the bilges and in time this water with oil on top would roll around the bilges in rough seas. In normal times the distance between the bottom of the boilers and the depth of the bilges would be quite respectable, but as the ingots had been placed under the boilers there was only about a four-inch space between the boilers and the ingots. During the rolling of the ship in heavy weather the bilge water on its way to and from over the ingots left the residue of the oil on the bottom of the boilers and eventually this oil ignited and we had unwanted fires in our boiler rooms. It was only the action of the POs and stokers on watch that prevented a disaster.

Once when the Skate was returning from Iceland we ran into a terrible heavy sea, so heavy that the sea was breaking on both sides of the upper deck. There appeared to be no leeside and seawater poured into the after boiler room through the fan intakes on deck. These intakes had shutters that when in place would prevent the rough seas from entering the boiler room. The normal practice being that the shutters would be closed on the weather side of the ship though at the time in question though the outer shutters were closed the heavy seas broke all over the deck and entered into the boiler room. That gave a depth of water that ran over the top of our shoes to ankles depth. My stoker and I had this for about three hours before the bilge pump had cleared the excessive water. One good thing came out of this, I developed a very sore throat which laid me up for about three days and when in Londonderry I did a day duty in the engine room, when one of the stokers asked if it was permissible to smoke, and I said ‘Yes, carry on’. Now at that time I did smoke and on being offered a cigarette I lit up, took one puff, said I did not like it, put the cigarette out and did not smoke from that day on.

During the spell of Londonderry to Iceland and back we did not have the opportunity to go ashore in Iceland. Our main trips ashore were in Londonderry. Towards the end of January 1944 it was decided that the Skate should be transferred to Devonport for in that area German (E) Boats were proving a menace to the build up of ships required for D-Day. The Skate having a very low silhouette was considered suitable against this (E) Boat menace.

On our way from Londonderry we were diverted to a Scottish Loch to be used in a training programme for future COs in submarines. Now this exercise, which was for only about four hours, was no problem for the Skate who working with two other Destroyers had to steam at high speed in line ahead, Skate being the last in line. The programme was that a prospective submarine commander would have these three ships steaming towards him and he would have to surface his submarine behind the last ship. However we were steaming at high speed when we were suddenly involved with a crunching bang under the hull. It appeared that the submarine had surfaced too soon and had run into our propellers. Emergency operations took place but the submarine surfaced safely with a badly damaged conning tower. We in Skate had two damaged propellers and buckled shafts. After a local enquiry into the incident the Skate at a very low speed escorted the submarine to Barrow where both vessels entered into dock for extensive repairs. Skate was in dockyard hands for about three weeks while both propellers and shafts were replaced along with extensive boiler cleaning. Each watch of hands was sent on leave.

Two instants of note happened towards the end of repairs. At one time after the shafts and propellers had been refitted it was found that the starboard shaft was jammed. To try and release this a heavy wire strop was passed around the shaft then connected to the dockside crane. On the crane taking the strain on the wire the action should have been to turn the shaft in its bearings. However before the shaft moved the stern of the Skate was lifted off the dry dock cradle and landed back down again with a resounding thump. The vibration through the boat breaking crockery in the forward messes. Anyhow the shaft was freed and no other damage was done. It was a marvel that the crane could lift the Skate’s stern only a fraction without serious damage being done to the crane.

The other incident concerned the three boilers, which through oil entering into the water supply needed chemical cleaning. This cleaning was done by a special process and it made a good job of cleaning the boilers. When steam was raised for Skate to go on trials a problem arose just before we were due to sail as the feed water pumps supplying water to the boilers suddenly lost suction. This meant a hasty shut down of the boilers to try and find the cause. The main and auxiliary water pumps were dismantled and it was found that the chemical cleaning agent had eaten away the ebonite piston rings of each pump. These rings were replaced and after trials Skate sailed to Devonport

One outcome of the boiler cleaning, which was done by a special cleaning operator using a chemical cleaning agent that was pumped around the complete boiler water system at a given temperature. The engineer doing the cleaning on completing the work left Skate for another task and he was on Barrow train station when he suddenly collapsed, after receiving medical attention it was said he had inhaled fumes from the chemicals being used. Luckily for him he soon recovered with no lasting effects.

At Devonport we joined up with the local escort group and were constantly at sea convoying ships in and around the south -west coast of England. This gave us a respite from the heavy seas of the Atlantic. We were so busy that at times we only had enough time to take on fuel and stores before we were away again. At one time we were moored at the buoy when signals were flashed to the Skate ‘Why are you not underway?’ it would appear that sailing orders to Skate had been sent by motor launch, this boat being coxswain by a Wren who presented the orders to the quartermaster, who chatted up the Wren, placed the orders in his pocket. The motorboat left and the quartermaster was attracted to some other task and forgot about the message. It was not until the signals flashed across the harbour enquiring why the Skate was not on its way, that the quartermaster remembered the orders in his pocket – too late to save him from punishment.

On returning to harbour from one convoy when we were taking on fuel my mate ‘Tubby Luff’ was called to the CO’s cabin. Tubby was the senior Catholic aboard and the local Catholic father was visiting the Skate and wished to see him. After a few welcoming words the father asked Tubby if he had been to mass lately, to which Tubby replied no because we had been in and out of harbour so often there was so little time spent ashore. On hearing this, the father told Tubby that the Pope would not be pleased, to which Tubby replied what the father and the Pope could do and stormed out of the cabin.

The very next day we sailed, meeting near Brixham the local fishing boats of which one came along side and traded us some fresh fish. Tubby and I were cleaning some of this when the CO came along the deck, on seeing Tubby he said ‘Good morning PO Luff and how is the Pope today’, before he went on the bridge.

Our CO was a Naval Voluntary Reserve officer and very well respected by his crew, he came from a wealthy Scots family and when his wife presented him with a son he sent for our Chief coxswain asking how many Chiefs and POs there were, on being told fourteen he gave the Chief ten bottles of whisky for us to celebrate his new son.

I had by now passed for my boiler room certificate and as I was nearing my 2 years as a PO I requested to take the Chief Stoker’s exam knowing that I would have to wait until Skate was in dockyard hands again. One afternoon while in the dockyard our engineer came aboard in an unpleasant mood. He saw me on deck with some of my fellow POs and walking straight up to me said ‘ Tomorrow go to the Rear Admiral Engineers Office and sit your Chief’s exam. For God’s sake don’t fail.’ It would appear he had been severely reprimanded by the examiners because four junior engine room artificers had failed their exams for which he had recommended them. The next day I presented myself at the place, was given a paper from which I had to choose questions. This took up to lunchtime and after lunch I reported back. I then sat in front of three Warrant engineers who reading through my answers asked questions about my remarks. They on being satisfied passed me to another office to be questioned verbally by a Commander (E).

The Commander told me I had passed the written test, he would now question me to ascertain my suitability for promotion. The questions revolved around all aspects of engineering. Fortunately my experiences on Skate helped me through the questions. I had spent quite some time with him before he was called away, saying that he would return in a few minutes. At another table in this office sat an Engineer Commander who said to me if you do not make a mistake soon you will be here for a long time. When the first Commander returned to carry on with the questioning I answered a few and then hesitated on one, which I could have answered. He then explained the answer to me and then said congratulations you have passed.

I returned to the Skate and the next day our engineer sent for me to say that I had passed with a VG mark and wished me luck. I could not stop myself from saying that about six months earlier he had said that I was no good to him. He laughed and thanking me went to the wardroom.

Skate was having problems with cockroaches. It was decided that the crew would be sent on leave one weekend while the dockyard staff sealed the boat and fumigated it. The cockroaches had been a big nuisance, it was such that when meals were laid out on the table they would help themselves to the food. Anyhow we returned to the Skate and what a relief, not a cockroach in sight. Preparations went ahead to get the Skate ready for sea. Steam was raised. After all systems were tested we left harbour. All seemed well until heat had been restored throughout the boat when low and behold out came the cockroaches that had hidden in the boat’s lagging and defied the fumigation. The only good of the exercise being that the crew had had weekend leave.

Around this time D-Day was approaching and Skate proceeded to Portsmouth where we picked up a convoy of military ships of all shapes and sizes. We cleared Portsmouth, went ahead of this motley of ships doing our anti-submarine sweep towards the French coast. It appeared that the invasion of Europe was on. The only thing against us was the weather. The weather deteriorated so badly that this attempt of the invasion was cancelled. The convoy was ordered to return to Portsmouth, the Skate being sent to Devonport. This took us into the next day and while we refuelled and took on supplies the invasion of Europe took place. Skate remained in harbour until the following day when we were called for anti-submarine and E Boat sweeps of the invasion beach heads. Nothing took place in our patrol areas as most of the naval engagements were to the north or south of our sweeping area. We did get a signal to say that a German destroyer could be heading our way, this destroyer retreating from a naval action that had seen the destruction of the rest of its flotilla. In Skate we were a little perturbed as the German destroyer had about 5 guns 5.5 size and torpedoes while we had 1 x 4 inch gun and a 12 pounder. Thankfully the German was intercepted before it reached our area.

While working in this area Skate had to refuel quite often as we only carried about 300 tonnes of fuel. It was on returning from refuelling that in the evening a plane was seen to ditch in the sea near us and we went to pick up any survivors, a raft was nearby containing four airmen though every time we got close to the raft the airmen paddled away as fast as they could it was only after the airmen understood what was being broadcast over the tannoy system before we could get them aboard ship. The airmen were Canadians and thought we were a German ship trying to capture them. Note from website staff: Since Alec wrote this, we learned from Mr Ira Rutbery, that the Canadians may actually have been Americans: He informed us that they were the crew of a US Airmy Air Corps C-47 (9th Air Force, Troop Carrier Command, 435th Troop Carrier Group, 78th Squadron, based at Welford) that had ditched after sustaining damage during the crew's second drop over Normandy. Ira's father was the pilot of the C-47 and recalled that he thought Skate was under the impression that he and his men were a German E-boat, thus the hesitance to get too close.

The Skate was ordered back to Devonport the Canadians were landed and Skate resumed convoy duties to ships coming from America. It was on one of these convoys that Skate came unfit for further service, we had proceeded into the Atlantic to escort a homeward bound convoy into British waters, I was on watch in the after boiler room and doing my normal inspection felt cold water spraying on to my neck now in a very warm place like a boiler room this is uncommon. On a closer inspection I noticed a fine spray of water coming through the ships side, this I reported to the engine room and our Engineer Officer came to inspect he then reported to the Commanding Officer his appreciation of the leaking ships side and as we were inside our territorial waters Skate was sent to Falmouth for temporary repairs. It was decided that a cement box would be fitted over the leak this would allow the ship to proceed to Devonport for more extensive repairs.

We sailed for Devonport and on approaching the boom defence we were signalled that our degaussing system was not working – this electrical system was a series of wires around the ship supplied with electrical current from motors that gave a protection against German magnetic mines – it was fortunate for us that we did not encounter any mines. In Skate it was found that the water spraying from the leak had entered the degaussing motor and put it out of action. We proceeded into harbour and berthed along side H.M.S. Black Prince a very new Cruiser when one of our steam pipes fractured causing problems in the boiler rooms as the air intake fans to the boilers could not supply enough air for complete combustion of the fuel supply to the oil burners, causing great clouds of black smoke to cascade over Black Prince really making her black. The Captain of the Black Prince stormed on deck and using a few choice navy words said, “get that B------ thing away from here immediately”. A tug arrived from the dock yard and taking us in hand took us to the docks.

We were berthed along side another tug that had been refitted and look, excellent with a new coat of paint. Skate had by this time repaired the steam pipe and steam was back to normal, when a stoker opened the steam valve to the bilge ejector - now Murphy’s law if its going to happen it will – the bilge ejector that had not worked for ages did, sending a dirty spray of bilge water over the tug. The tug’s Skipper was not very pleased and certainly let everyone know.

The authorities decided to put Skate in dry dock for inspection and after a good survey it was decided the Skate would be scrapped and her crew sent back to their respective barracks. I was returned to Portsmouth and after some leave I was drafted to H.M.S. Loch Tarbert a new frigate being built in Troon Scotland.