History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

Frederick Thomson

Frederick Thomson

Written by Liz Thomson (daughter)

F W C ‘Duke’ Thomson 22 February 1921 – 13 February 2015

RNA Convoy Signalman who sailed the Atlantic and on Convoy JW64 “How long does a man live?” the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda asked. “And how much does he live while he lives?”

Our father lived until just nine days short of his 94 th birthday, and during those years he lived a lot. Not always in ways he might have wished, though like all those who fought in World War Two, he mostly looked back on the camaraderie, the excitements of shore leave in places undreamed–of in that pre-wired world. Frederick William Charles Thomson – Fred to his own family; Tom or Tommy to his wife’s; and Duke to his Navy pals – began his life in Wood Green, the second of six children, five of them boys. His sister Marian, who married a GI and moved to the States, remembers a somewhat naughty older brother who regularly played truant. Indeed, his report book from Glendale County School records that he was absent 34 times in the spring of 1935 and 28 the following term. Despite that, his conduct in class was good or excellent and – very fortunately for his mathematically challenged daughters, whose homework he would later do – he scored highly in algebra and geometry.

In 1937, he passed his General Schools Certificate and left Glendale to become a clerk with the Vacuum Oil Company, working first in St James’s and then at the Mansion, Ottershaw Park, Vacuum’s Wartime HQ. It was from there that he wrote to the Naval Recruiting Officer in July 1940, a volunteer seeking to join the Fleet Air Arm as a pilot or observer. France had fallen, the Channel Islands were under Occupation and the first bombs had been dropped on Channel shipping. Letters reveal his disappointment on learning that a dodgy left eye prevented him flying. Twice he appealed the decision, finally asking if he might serve as a Wireless Telegraphist. “I definitely do not wish to join in any capacity in which I would not go to sea,” he wrote. The reply was swift: Telegraphists were required to be no less eagle–eyed than pilots. Sick Berth Attendant, Cook, Steward and Writer were the only ways he would gain “sea experience”.

It’s not clear what happened next – perhaps it was simply the exigencies of war – but on 7 January 1941, he walked through the gates of Butlins Holiday Camp at Skegness to take up his commission aboard HMS Royal Arthur. Some forty years later, he would recall: “Above the gateway in bold letters were the words OUR SOLE INTENT IS ALL FOR YOUR DELIGHT…”

“I was put in a family chalet with a double bed and a single bed… To discourage any navy larks, the double bed was divided into two by a board down the middle, but the weather was so cold, with ice forming on the walls and blankets, that Bob and I disposed of the board and shared our blankets, as did most of the others. Training was quite hard, with instruction in Morse code, flag signals, semaphore and general seamanship. There was also PT, including cross country running, often in thick snow, Reveille was at 5.30 and we would start the day with mugs of thick cocoa.”

A yellowing notebook records his studies, his elegant writing easily readable. Four months later, he passed his exams as an Ordinary Signalman, attaining full marks in semaphore and 99 per cent in both coding and lamps. After two weeks in Chatham Naval Barracks, he and his shipmates boarded a train for Liverpool, a long journey punctuated by air raids. They arrived in the early hours of 8 May to find the city ablaze, their intended billet bombed. A month later he sailed out of the Mersey on the first of many Atlantic Convoys, this one headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

It was “without much incident, apart from a couple of U-boat alerts” (he would write). As they neared land, thick fog brought visibility down almost to zero. When, after 48 hours, they emerged into clear visibility, he saw schools of whales spouting. Happily, when he went ashore, it was to “a real touch of luxury”, the owner of the Halifax Hotel insisting the young sailors be treated as if they were paying guests. Halifax itself, he reported, was “not very interesting, with little in the way of entertainment”.Much more exciting was New York, where he spent a good deal of happy shore leave – a limey, “on the town”, maybe not quite as in Leonard Bernstein’s great musical, but certainly having fun… Basketball at Madison Square Garden, films at Radio City Music Hall, dinner at the theatrical Lambs Club, after–show parties with Gertrude Lawrence and Danny Kaye, jazz in Greenwich Village…At a variety show at Carnegie Hall – Cab Calloway and Arthur Tracy among the highlights – the compere asked the audience to show their appreciation of “two boys from the British Navy” who were in the audience. Our father and his friend Bob were invited to take a bow.

American families opened their homes to British sailors, who were showered with hospitality: Thanksgiving in Old Lyme Connecticut, Christmas in Manhasset, Long Island, to which – half a century later – he and I returned, and found the house in which he’d stayed. One can only imagine how thrilling it must have been to sail in to New York harbour, how emotive the sight of Lady Liberty’s torch in those days of Blitz and blackouts. The neon excitement of a city in which nothing was rationed! He always recalled ordering lobster in the Rainbow Room but having no idea how to tackle it. To support these lavish new tastes, he picked up some casual work sweeping the floor in Macey’s. He spent some of his wages on a bottle or hair restorer. As instructed, he massaged the pricey unguent into this already thinning pate all the way from Brooklyn Navy Yard to Liver Buildings… by which time he seemed to have less hair than when he’d left.

The North Atlantic runs were the most frequent and the most important – more than one thousand convoys sailed up the Mersey – but there were also trips to Africa and Egypt, including a memorable voyage through the Suez Canal, and to Rio de Janeiro.

And in February 1945, he reported for duty on Convoy JW64, from the Clyde to Archangel. Churchill called it “the worst journey in the world” and for once perhaps he wasn’t exaggerating. Nevertheless, it took seventy years before the Government acknowledged the sacrifice with the Arctic Star. Daddy was thrilled beyond measure to be honoured at last, as pictures of him at the Whitehall ceremony in September 2013 show. Last November, at the Arctic Memorial in Enfield, the dashing Russian Naval Attaché presented him with the Ushakov Medal.

Liverpool, Command HQ for the Battle of the Atlantic – the war’s longest campaign – was his home base and it was there, on an early visit, that he met our mother, Catherine Edna Fardell, at a tea dance at the Rialto Ballroom. By all accounts, they were frequent visitors, at least until she became a TB nurse in Manchester. “Only officers could afford to take me to the Adelphi,” she used to say. They married in 1946, settling in London, where he joined first Crown Life and then Legal & General. It was a typical post–War life of make–do–and–mend… At first they lived over the family newsagent’s in Fonthill Road, then in a bright and shiny new council flat. Finally, in 1960, they achieved that generation’s dream – buying a thirties semi. I was three, Maureen just into her teens. The dull grey years of Fifties austerity soon gave way to Sixties Technicolor. Life must have seemed very heaven, even though there was little money. The Beatles laid down the soundtrack: our mother was thrilled – four lovely boys had put her home city on the map. From “Love me do” on. Maureen was hooked, and I was allowed to stay up and watch them play Sunday Night at the London Palladium because she was in the audience with her best friend Monica, Daddy having somehow managed to acquire tickets.

In those far away days of Family Favourites and just two television channels, everyone listened and watched as a family. So on the one hand Jeremy Isaacs’ celebrated series on the Second World War. On the other, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Juke Box Jury. Our parents enjoyed a wide variety of music and were generally tolerant of our tastes, though Daddy’s did not extend to the Rolling Stones. “They’ll never last!” he expostulated, as Maureen sat in her tapestry mini skirt, transfixed by the vision of Mick Jagger, playing his lips like loose elastic as he chatted to Simon Dee. Neither of us were notably rebellious teenagers though we surely caused moments of despair. Maureen used to paint her nails and sculpt her hair into a beehive – forbidden at St Michael’s Convent – arriving downstairs of a morning too late for anyone to do anything about it. I remember the arguments when she insisted on leaving school at the earliest opportunity and again, just a few years later, when she announced she was going to work in Spain. Typically, it was Daddy who brokered the compromise: she was to book a two–week holiday and was to return at the end of it if no job was in prospect. She’s been there pretty much even since.

My own revolt took the form of total immersion in 1960s American music and counterculture at a time when my classmates were screaming for the Osmonds and David Cassidy. Neither parent cared much for Bob Dylan, of which they heard rather a lot, but were well–disposed to Joan Baez, whom they would eventually meet. And while they both wished I’d spend more time practising the piano, they were supportive of my forays into what remained of the London folk scene, coming to clubs and pubs where I played for what seemed like great riches. On such occasions, Daddy sported a pair of blue jeans. He was always a good sport and – though generally a quiet man – was never shy about hamming it up. He sallied forth one New Year’s Eve sporting a long curly wig – a tall dark stranger first footing at a neighbour’s. And he was a good and witty speaker, a confident off–the–cuff performer whatever the circumstance and whatever the company… which once included Michael Foot and Mikhail Gorbachev. He was, I think, an exceedingly bright man who, at a different time, would have gone far. He could add up a long column of figures in his head while his daughters struggled to add two and two. Way back when, he worried that the shrinking birth rate would mean insufficient money to underwrite the costs of an aging population. And he was endlessly exercised about pensions mis–selling and the evils of front–loaded commission long before various scandals made them front–page news. Indeed, I think that’s why he retired early – he hated the pressure to sell rather than to offer advice. He was liberal, fair-minded; a genuinely honest broker who always did the right thing. And he was a gentle man – so much more gentle than the three obstreperous women who surrounded him!

Widowed on the eve of the new century, he regained his equilibrium, supported by good neighbours who looked out for him and to whose children he was sort of an honorary grandpa. He travelled a bit – to New York with me, to Spain with Maureen, and to France, Portugal and Tunisia with us both. On weekends when I was with him, he’d often gaze up at the photo of our mother and worry that he’d made an insufficiently good life for his family. He regretted that he’d been compassionately discharged from the Navy a few months before the War ended. His father was ill and, as the second son – his elder brother was married – he was required to run the family business. Had he been demobbed, he’d have been entitled to return to the Vacuum Oil Company where he’d no doubt have prospered. And of course he’d missed the thrill of demobilisation – there was a sense in which the War was “unfinished business”. I could see what he meant, but I’d always tell him he’d done what was right at the time and anyway, things had turned out just fine. But he’d cry, which of course was heart-breaking.

He was a remarkably competent man, able to turn his hand to most things and I – a sort of only child, following Maureen’s departure for Spain – was happy to play first mate, and he’d patiently show me how to apply a smooth coat of white gloss or mix cement. Indeed, it’s hard to recall anything at which he failed utterly…. Except punting. I remember a sunny afternoon at Hemingford Grey when he came close to being left dangling from the pole as my mother laughed helplessly from her cushioned perch. After that, it was back to row boats from Turk’s Boatyard at Cookham, a favourite summer Saturday family outing.

Like almost everyone, he felt diminished by age. Frustrated by limitations of which he was acutely aware. Dependent on others, which he hated but for which he was always full of thanks and apologies. The parent – child role reversal is always tricky to navigate and I think a great part of my own difficulty stemmed from my unwillingness to accept him as he was, rather than as he had been. Able to solve any problem, be it a tax return or a long tow home after my first car had been stolen and trashed. That meant I wasn’t always as patient or as gentle with him as I ought to have been in those last difficult years, when his spirit remained willing but the flesh weakened. He bore the indignities of old age stoically and in his heart and head remained, I’m sure, the brave young man who stood up to be counted all those years ago. He was a good and loving father. Kind, constant, considerate; slow to anger – the best of all of us. As the end approached, he struggled not only to swallow but to form words, yet he managed to ask, with unusual clarity, “is everything in order” and “will you be all right”. How typical of him: ever meticulous; still not wanting to cause a problem.

Maureen and I offered reassurance, giving him, we hoped, permission to go. Which he did, very peacefully. One minute here, the next not. Gone gentle into that good night. The radio was on: Fanfare for the Common Man and then The Lark Ascending as he took his last breath, Maureen and I both with him. We will scatter him – as we did our mother – on the Mersey’s ebb tide, returning him to the Atlantic on which he sailed so perilously all those years ago. Today, however, we celebrate a life, a very long life and a rich one, full of fun and laughter and, inevitably some disappointments. But an overwhelmingly good life. All that remains is to wish him God speed – and as the old naval toast has it: “up spirits”. Which is what he’d wish us all.

Click to expand photos