Norway was occupied by the Nazis in World War Two and provided the Third Reich with many ports into the North Sea as well as a rich iron ore supply. As early as 1940, the British sought to end German rule in the country. The Royal Navy was dispatched north and one of the battles took place in Narvik between 10-13 April 1940.
You left school at 14. How did you get involved with the Royal Navy?
Well, one of my cousins was in the Navy and when I was about 14 years old he came home in a nice uniform. I thought “this is the job for me”. I joined the navy a year after leaving of school when I was 15 in 1935.
You started off as a ‘Boy Sailor’, how did you progress through the ranks?
I joined up in HMS St Vincent to do my training. Having been used to fresh air, I decided that signals was better than being a telegraphist. After training I spent about 12 months on the HMS Rodney as a Signal Boy. When I was 18 I was transferred to a Destroyer named the HMS Warwick just before the war and after the Warwick was the HMS Hardy.
Were your two brothers in the navy?
Yes they were. One was a chef who joined at the end of the war and the other was a stoker on an old steam ship that I can’t quite remember the name of.
You were 19 years old during the Battle of Narvik. What do you remember? Can you describe your experiences for us please?
We were called back from Sierra Leone were we out on patrol. We came back in quite a panic and no one really knew what was happening. After about a week’s leave we joined up with the HMS Renown in Norway just as the Norwegian war started. We ran into the two German battleships, the Gneisenau and the Sharnhorst and we had a little run with them until they suddenly disappeared. It was so rough at sea that we couldn’t catch up with them. From then we were patrolling the minefields in Norway and we suddenly got this message to go up to Narvik.
What was your role on the HMS Hardy during the battle?
I was a signalman on the flag deck. We were lookouts and we had to pass on other signals or messages to other destroyers. We got into Narvik at six in the morning after a foggy and snowy trip up a fjord.
We had two attacks in Narvik. There were no problems with the first one when the Hardy sunk two Destroyers with the aid of the other ships involved in that attack. After that was over, the captain decided that we should go back for another go. It was in this battle that we had quite a shock at first. We managed to dodge a torpedo but as we did another one came and went underneath our midships. The torpedoes just missed us. When we finished the second attack, we went out and the captain ordered that we have another look around on the third attack to assess the damage. As we came out we ran into more German destroyers.
(The German destroyers fired on the Hardy setting her on fire and mortally wounding the captain, Bernard Warburton-Lee. The ship was ship was abandoned and ran aground on the shoreline. We pick up the story with Ralph having abandoned ship after taking hits to the back and arms)
Can you remember much after you were wounded and the journey to safety?
We were told to abandon ship and I was wounded in my back and arms and I could hardly move. I was helped into a whaler but it was full of holes and went straight to the bottom. We had to get back to shore, which was about 400 yards (365 metres/1,197 feet) away. When I got to the end of the water, I stood up and suddenly I went black and I said, “You might as well leave me here, I’ve had it”. I lost all consciousness and didn’t come round for three days. I woke up with a sudden bang to the sound of gunfire.
After you were discharged from hospital, you were put straight back into service. Where and how did you serve until the end of the war?
I went to a sloop then I was loaned to another for landings in North Africa. After that I was on a Polish Destroyer for a month and then onto minesweepers. Next, I was a Duty Officer in Hong Kong for the anti-piracy patrol and lastly on the HMS Vanguard in the Mediterranean.
How was life coming back to Britain after the war?
It wasn’t too difficult. I was lucky. My last few months in the navy I did a correspondence course on radios and I worked as a radio engineer in retail shop. With my injuries, I was restricted to jobs I could do. I can’t really grumble as it was quite a nice job and i was even made manager!
Attack at Dawn by Ron Cope (published by Clink Street Publishing RRP £11.99 paperback, RRP £7.99 ebook) is available from 10 April 2015 online from retailers including amazon.co.uk and to order from all good bookstores.