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

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.


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