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From Cuba Street to Buckingham Palace: The Remarkable story of Harry T Waterman DSM (1917-1984) by Gerard Gilbertson

Last October, Gerard Gilbertson sent a fascinating short history of his Grandfather John F. Gilbertson who was Mayor of Poplar between 1938 and 1939 which we published on Isle of Dogs Life.  I am delighted to say that Gerard has written another piece which will be published in two parts, this time about his uncle Harry T Waterman who was born in Cuba Street on the Isle of Dogs. The following piece by Gerard reminds us that in times of war, young men and women were often asked to undertake dangerous tasks on a regular basis.  

Harry Waterman was born in 1917 at no.3 Cuba Street on the Isle of Dogs, attended St Luke’s School on the Westferry Road , and together with his parents and many  brothers and sisters lived in Cuba Street until almost the whole extended family moved to Denham in Buckinghamshire shortly after the start of WWII. He saw service in the Royal Navy from October 1940 until January 1946. During that time he was on convoy escort operations primarily in the North Atlantic and on Arctic runs. This article gives the background to the spectacular events surrounding the sinking of the Italian submarine Pietro Calvi in July 1942 and the subsequent award of the DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) to Harry for “bravery, skill and determination”. The investiture was by King George VI at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in December 1942.

Part One: Harry’s early Navy career.

Harry joined the Navy in October 1940, starting his training at two land-based “ships”, HMS Collingwood and HMS Pembroke. Here he received intensive training in gunnery, and joined the crew of his first real ship, HMS Lulworth, in June 1941 as a gunner, a posting he retained until June 1943.

HMS Lulworth had only recently been allocated to the British Navy under the Lend/Lease Programme. Originally she had been cutter #45, the Chelan, of the US coastguard, and a total of ten such ships were loaned to the British as anti-submarine escorts. These were the Banff-class sloops. She was named after Lake Chelan, built by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Quincy, Massachusetts, and launched on 19 May 1928. She had performed Bering Sea patrols and international ice patrols. She became HMS Lulworth on 2 May 1941 and sailed to England with convoy SC 31. Harry joined the crew almost immediately afterwards on June 10th 1941. These loaned sloops were initially used to escort eastern Atlantic trade convoys between England and Sierra Leone, and one was sunk while so employed. It was on these runs to and from Sierra Leone that Harry saw much of his early action.

Pre-war photo of HMS Lulworth, at that time still USCG Chelan. (Photo: http://www.jacksjoint.com)

HMS Lulworth. Late 1943 in Atlantic. (Photo: http://www.ww2aircraft.net).

Oerlikon 20mm gun operators on convoy escort duty in WW2 (Photo: Imperial War Museum, no date/place). This was the job of Harry Waterman while assigned to HMS Lulworth on West African and Atlantic convoys. The idealized and propagandistic nature of this photo is clear: sunny weather, calm seas, an alert gun crew, no enemy vessels or planes anywhere in sight, and an orderly and safe convoy!

Harry Waterman (left) and fellow gunner relaxing on HMS Lulworth. (Pre-June 1943, private family photo). Probably while on convoy duty from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

There were several notable events involving HMS Lulworth while Harry Waterman was a member of the crew, and with Lt.Cdr. C. Gwinner as Captain. Some of these involved rescue operations of other ships’ crews from the sea. They include:

27 Aug 1941:HMS Lulworth  picked up 27 survivors from the Norwegian merchant Segundo that was torpedoed and sunk west of Ireland in position 53°36’N, 16°40’W by German U-boat U-557

23 Sept 1941:Lulworth picked up 42 survivors from the British merchant Niceto de Larrinaga that had been torpedoed and sunk the previous day by German U-boat U-103 South-West of the Canary Islands in position 27°32’N, 24°26’W.

24 Sept 1941 Lulworth picked up 5 survivors from the British merchant St. Clair II that was torpedoed and sunk west-northwest of the Canary Islands in position 30°25’N, 23°35’W by German U-boat U-67.

Harry on look-out duty on HMS Lulworth. (1941/42,  personal family photo).  Probably on a North Atlantic or Arctic run

11 Jun 1942 HMS Lulworth picked up 20 survivors from the British tanker Geo H. Jones that was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat U-455 north-northeast of the Azores in position 45?40’N, 22?40’W.

Author of „Das Boot“: Lothar-Günther Buchheim in 2006 (wikipedia)

The submarine U-96, author Lothar-Günther Buchheim, and the novel/film “Das Boot”

As part of the 7th U-boat Flotilla, stationed in Saint Nazaire, on the French Atlantic coast, U-96 conducted 11 patrols, sinking 27 ships and damaging four others.

During 1941, German war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim joined U-96 for a single patrol. His orders were to photograph and describe the U-boat in action for propaganda purposes. Over 5,000 photographs, mostly taken by Buchheim, survived the war. From his experiences, he wrote a short story, “Die Eichenlaubfahrt” (“The Oak-Leaves Patrol”) and a 1973 novel which was to become an international best-seller, Das Boot, followed in 1976 by U-Boot-krieg (“U-Boat War”), a nonfiction chronicle of the voyage. In 1981 Wolfgang Petersen brought the novel to the big screen with the internationally critically acclaimed film Das Boot. Readers of this article may remember its extremely successful and popular serialization on BBC TV in the mid-1980s.

In October 1941 this U-boat was attacked by HMS Lulworth off the west Irish coast while escorting convoy OS 10, but was not damaged, as reported here:

October 31st , ,1941 – At 10.47 AM 400 miles West of Ireland, U-96 sinks Dutch SS Bennekom (5 crew and 3 gunners killed, 46 survivors picked up the next day by British sloop HMS Culver). U-96 is attacked by a British sloop with 27 depth charges (U-96 is not damaged).

Author Buchheim adopted this depth-charge attack by HMS Lulworth as background to dramatic scenes in his novel and film.

 (Sources for the above textual details include uboat.net/allies and worldwar2daybyday.blogspot.) 

U-96 berthed at St Lazaire in France in March 1942 (Photo: wikipedia fr.). The author Buchheim’s experiences on board this submarine in 1941, including being depth-charged by HMS Lulworth, resulted in his best-selling novel and film “Das Boot”, as well as other factual books and articles.

Part two of this article deals with the specific action leading to the award of Harry’s DSM, his injury , the end of his service on HMS Lulworth, and his return to civilian life.

Many thanks to Gerard for sharing this story with our readers.


The Strange Story of the Chinese Junk Keying at Blackwall in 1848

Whilst writing the West India Dock Review and listing the Chinese ships, I was reminded of a story which I have intended to write for some time. The Chinese ships that visited in 2017 were not the first Chinese ships to visit this area, perhaps one of the first was the Keying which was an 800 ton Chinese junk that caused a sensation when it was berthed in East India Docks in 1848.

A  P.L.A monthly article written in 1939 give some of the details.

In 1848, steam was still comparatively in its infancy, and sails and masts were no unusual sight on London River, but many an officer of the watch coming up on deck at Gravesend one day in March must have rubbed his eyes suspiciously at the sight of a Chinese junk in the Thames. There she lay at anchor, her 30ft. bows decorated with two painted eyes, her stern, standing as high as a house, ornamented by a monstrous bird and gaudy flower designs. Strange flags and pieces of red rag fluttered on her masts, and her decks were manned by pale-faced Chinese sailors, wondering at the misty greyness of the Kent landscape.

For almost two years the Keying,a typical Chinese coasting junk, already a hundred years old, had been driven across the Seven Seas to England by Captain Kellett and a party of Englishmen with a Chinese crew. Some said she was originally a pirate ship. This may be just romantic fabrication, but at any rate the junk had an adventurous voyage before she arrived in the Thames.

After a short stay at Gravesend she was towed up the river to the East India Docks and moored in the basin. A hoarding was erected round her, and those wanting to satisfy their curiosity had to pay to do so. For some time the junk was the talk of the day.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert went to see her, and the Queen Mother took a big party. Booklets giving particulars of the vessel, her voyage, and the curios on show were sold at 6d.each and numerous medals were struck to commemorate the event.

The ship’s journey before it arrived in England was unusual to say the least, The Keying was a three-masted Chinese junk which was purchased in August 1846 in secrecy by British businessmen in Hong Kong, defying a Chinese law prohibiting the sale of Chinese ships to foreigners. The Keying was manned by 12 British and 30 Chinese sailors and commanded by Captain Charles Alfred Kellett and sailed round the Cape of Good Hope before arriving in New York City.

The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh (1814–1885), depicting the Junk Keying moored in New York Harbor in 1847 (c. 1853–1855, Museum of the City of New York).

The following newspaper report gives some illustration of the excitement of the Junk’s arrival in New York in 1847

The Chinese Junk.

The junk, the Key-Ying, which arrived at New York on the 8th of July, excited there the greatest curiosity. Her light and graceful build, her sails of matting suspended to her bamboo yards, her smooth and rapid movement-thanks to which, if we may believe the Chinese crew, they have never suffered from bad weather-in short, the singularity of the furniture, which includes some dogs with tongues as black as ink, brought by the captain, all combined to attract a crowd of spectators. The prettiest women of New “York loved to boast of having visited the Chinese junk. Unfortunately the enterprise does not appear to have had the same success in a pecuniary respect. The Chinese sailors, to the number of twenty-six, not having been paid their wages, have arrested the vessel, and Mr. Lord, their advocate, has pleaded for them before the civil court of the district. The crew claim, in the first place, their arrears of wages from the month of September, 1846 : and in the second, to be sent back to Canton at the expense of the captain. According to the sailor’s accounts, they were only engaged for eight months, and were not to go beyond Batavia and Singapore. The Court decided in favour of the crew, maintained the seizure, ordered the sale of the vessel, and condemned the captain to pay each man one or two hundred dollars, according to rank.

Despite these problems,  the Keying stayed several months in New York attracting thousands of visitors each day who paid 25 cents to board the ship. She then visited Boston in November 1847 before arriving in Britain in 1848.

The excitement of the people in New York was matched by the people in London and even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made the journey to have a look around. The following report was written by someone who was rather excited by it all.

Visit of Her Majesty and the Prince Consort to the Chinese Junk. 

The Queen and Prince Albert, accompanied by the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, and the Prince of Prussia, went to Blackwall, on Tuesday afternoon, to inspect the Chinese junk Keying, recently brought to this country. The royal party left Buckingham Palace shortly after four o’clock. The Queen and Prince Albert, with the princess of Prussia, the Prince of Wales, and the Princess Royal, rode in one open carriage and four.

The route taken was down Birdcage-walk, over Westminster Bridge to the Borough road, and thence over London Bridge, through Fenchurch-street, Whitechapel, and the Commercial road, to the East India Docks. The royal party arrived at Blackwall at half-past five, and entered the East India Docks by the Orchard House gate, On the royal carriage drawing up at the entrance of the enclosure, her Majesty alighted, and, taking the arm of the Prince of Prussia, was conducted by Lord Alfred Paget on board the junk. The Prince Consort followed leading the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal. As the Queen placed her foot upon the deck, the Royal standard of England was run up to the summit of the mainmast by the Chinese sailors.

The royal party then proceeded to the poop; from this elevated part of the vessel they were visible to the thousands of spectators on the shipping and dock walls, and their appearance was greeted with tumultuous cheering. To reach this point was a matter of no small difficulty; and we question whether many of our fair readers who may hereafter visit this ship will have boldness to attempt it ; but the Queen mounted the steps leading thereto with the activity of a school girl, and her beaming countenance, when she looked round, evidenced a degree of delight and satisfaction not inconsistent with the character alluded to.

 After the spring heeled Queen Victoria had visited, thousands made their way to Blackwall to look at the Chinese Junk and many commemorative medals and collectables were produced for the general public. Leaflets were produced to attract visitors; the following gives more details of the visits.

The Royal Chinese Junk “KEYING” manned by a Chinese Crew. Visitors received by a Mandarin of rank and Chinese Artist of celebrity. Grand Saloon, gorgeously furnished in the most approved style of the Celestial Empire. Collection of Chinese Curiosities.

The “Keying” is now open for Exhibition, from Ten to six, in the East India Docks, adjoining the Railway and Steam-boat Pier, Blackwall.—Admission, One Shilling.

In time the interest waned and eventually the Keying was sold and towed from London to the river Mersey by a steam tug arriving in 1853. It was moored at the Rock Ferry slipway near Liverpool for public exhibition before being dismantled on the shore near the Tranmere Ferry opposite Liverpool.

London Symphony Photography Exhibition at Southwark Cathedral from 10th February to 2nd March 2018

In 2014, I was contacted by Alex Barrett who was raising funds for his very interesting film project about London. The project become a reality and was released to considerable success.  The film was nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017, and was the winner of four categories in the Silent London Poll of 2017: Best Silent Film DVD/Blu-ray release, Best Silent Film Theatrical Release, Best Modern Silent Film of 2017 and Silent Hero of 2017 for the film’s director and editor Alex Barrett.

London Symphony is a silent film which offers a poetic journey through the capital. It is directed and edited by Alex Barrett, and features an original musical composition by composer James McWilliam. The film is a contemporary take on the ‘city symphony’, a genre of that flourished in the 1920s and consisted of works that attempted to build poetic portraits of city life.

London Symphony is celebration of London’s culture and diversity and footage for the film was captured in over 300 locations around every borough of London.

During the making of the film, Alex Barrett took a wide range of photographs, some of which will be featured in photography exhibition at Southwark Cathedral. The exhibition runs from the 10th February – 2nd March in the Cathedral Refectory.

If you would like to see the film, you will be able to attend a special, candle-lit screening of London Symphony which will take place in the nave of the Cathedral on February 23rd. This screening is part of the film’s on going UK theatrical tour, which was launched with a sold out screening at the Barbican Centre in September 2017.

London Symphony will also be released in the UK on DVD through New Wave Films on Monday February 12th 2018. The DVD is available to pre-order from all good stockists, including Amazon here and direct from New Wave Films here .