Frederick Alfred George Hunter

Frederick Alfred George Hunter was born in Islington in 1903 and joined the Navy in 1927 as a Probationary Sub Lieutenant and rose to Lieutenant before transferring to the Royal Naval College at Pangbourne until 1937 when Lt Hunter transferred to HMS Defiance and then HMS Drake.  In 1939 he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander (retd) and posted to HMS Forte, before being posted to HMS LEIGH the 1st November 1940 where he must have made an excellent impression as Lt Cdr Hunter was promoted to Commander a year later. From early 1943, Commander Hunter served as Commodore of Convoys based at HMS Leigh, under the command of Commodore J.P Champion.

One of Commander Hunter’s duties was to give speeches to factory worker to boost morale and let them know that their work was as vital to the war effort as being on the front line. In 1943, Commander Hunter gave a speech to factory workers in and around Manchester, and his family has very kindly allowed HMS Leigh – Make Do and Mend to share them.

 

“Cmdr Frederick Alfred George Hunter - Commodore Coastal Convoys based at HMS Leigh

Introduction

The other day I arrived in from the Channel and was asked if I would like to visit factories in Manchester and district. My reply was an emphatic "Yes"!

Manchester hospitality

It is quite a number of years since I was piloted up the Ship canal by a very ancient mariner (he must have been 80) who brought his helmsman with him known as Billy Boy (Billy was probably 100). We made record trip up to Runcorn Padington because the Pilot had promised to take Billy Boy to the pictures to see Mary Pickford if he steered well.

This little incident is fresh in my memory today because we all went  ashore. I remember we applied at a house for a taxi and not only were we asked inside but also invited to have supper. Such hospitality is not easily forgotten and I am very pleased to be here again.

I have decided that this informal talk should be about Convoys and the part the services play in running them. The Royal Navy, the RAF but probably much nearer to Manchester, the Merchant Navy.

The Commodore

I have been on this job as Commodore of Convoys for two and a half years and I must say that the system works remarkably well. Commodore of Convoys sounds rather a grand title but I have wondered at times whether or not the job is a cross between a Pilot and a Commercial Traveller - a guide at sea especially on ships that "no spika de Ingles" and ashore a man who is forever carrying and living out of a suitcase.

The Commodore flies a Broad Pennant at the masthead (that is a white flag with tails and a Blue Cross on it). This I have viewed with doubt because the if the tails were cut off its meaning would be "Junior Officers may take over while this flag is flying"

To proceed with our Convoy. Having selected the most suitable ship for thew Commodore & his staff of W/Tel signalmen a Vice Commodore is appointed from among the Merchant Captains. He is a sort of lance Corporal unpaid and takes over should the Commodore ship meet with a mishap.

At the appointed time all ships weigh anchor at two minute intervals steam out of the port to take up respective stations. 50/60 ships. The speed is decreased for this evolution and when all are reported closed up by the rear destroyer the convoy speed is set until the final port is reached (only it is not quite as easy as that). During the voyage vessels drop off and proceed into the Humber or North Country ports while others meet at certain rendezvous and join and so a constant  steam of traffic is rounding our coast.

At this moment and in fact every moment of the day or night there are probably 20 convoys representing something like 500/800 ships keeping the wheels of industry turning. Quite a large percentage are Colliers. When we had a shortage of coal down south recently I was asked why the coal could not be sent down by rail. If we take 20 Colliers carrying 1000 apiece daily we get 20,000 tons. This would mean that a train would have to pull 2,000 trucks - but not only should we have these 2,000 trucks loaded we should want 2,000 empties going back 2,000 being loaded &2000 being discharged. As they say on the BBC I fear we should have a delay due to a technical hitch.

The difficulties in Convoy work are of course the weather and strong tides that sweep across the fairways.

I estimate that during the past two years I have had four thousand ships in my coastal convoys and have lost two to bombing, seven to mines and one by stranding, all this fortunately with the loss of only one life. Some time ago Southend published figures for convoy number 1000 - the shipping casualties were one half of one percent.

I think you will agree that these figures give proof that ships should sail together whatever the size or speed protecting themselves with their own armament & being escorted by men of war.

When I mention protection I should like to thank all workers for their contribution. Protection is not only needed for the ships but for the men who fight these ships, most especially in the Atlantic and the Russian Convoys. I know form experience that I would not trade my old Duffel Coat & jerseys, waterproof & glasses for all the tea in China. I feel most at home and comfortable. In fact I feel as if I have done a strip tease act on the quayside when I land. Well I know that you do not want me to give you a particular pat on the back because we know that we are all in this show, whatever the job. However sometimes we find factories tucked away in the country churning out the same old piece of uninteresting piece of metal or material rather wondering to what purpose. I can assure you they all have their place in the operation of Convoys and to the effect, that as you will find on every exported article that finds its way into an American or Canadian home a Union Jack with "Britain delivers the goods" (For the benefit of the men here this especially applies to whiskey)

In the bad old days we used to think ourselves lucky if had a couple of Lewis guns. The Jerry planes were most cocky. They did not just lay heir eggs but almost sat on us and hatched them out. I remember on one occasion after sinking the ship astern a bomber machine gunned us from a few hundred feet. The Captain & I had pot shots with rifles but I can assure you we did not feel quite so brave in the morning when we viewed the pepper pot effect around us.  Thanks to the factory output of guns, balloons, and the gear needed to run the ship efficiently we are now treated with a healthy respect.

The ships after loading or discharging report at their assembly ports. It is here that the Naval Control Service take them in hand & sort out the sheep from the goats and grade them into fast medium or slow Convoys. The Captains of these vessels land and meet with the Commodore & Captains of the escorts round the conference table & talk the details of the forthcoming voyage over. At a period pre war the Merchant Navy thought the Royal Navy a snobbish crowd (which they were not) too much uniform and polish and the Navy on sighting a dirty old tramp thought "what's that old tub doing mucking up our manoeuvres - Have a look number one the old mans still wearing his bowler hat" To illustrate, The Gaslight and Coke Company of London have a fleet of colliers called Mr Therm Gasfire Gaslight etc. The other day on the North Sea SS Gasfire straggled out of her station & a destroyer dashed up and hailed her "What is the matter with you Captain" The reply was "Something wrong with my engines" to which the destroyer unfeeling replied "Well put another shilling in the slot"

You will note that the old man was addressed as Captain and not Skipper. If you want to rub a merchantman up the wrong way - call him Skipper. There is a certain amount of pride and dignity if you are in command even though it be a tub.

We all know that the Royal Navy have done excellent work but hitherto little has been known about the M.N They are splendid chaps now and I hope that this will be remembered after the war. After all they do not ask for much, just reasonable rates of pay and occasional spells at home. Strikes are unknown and all if necessary work a 24 hour day. This comes under a clause in the Articles they sign called Safety of Ships at Sea. In the course of my work in peace time(which is stevedoring for the Union Castle Line) I come into contact quite frequently with shop stewards. I can ask nothing more that I in my obscure way represent these seagoers as their shop steward - an office that I believe is non-existent. It is only in wartime that the seagoing fraternity are brought into the limelight. I remember how surprised I was at the ignorance of my own family on returning home my first trip on a Fleet Oil Tanker. I was asked how we found our way in the darkness. I was told that I looked nice in my livery. But Grandma capped it all . After expounding all the details of this wonderful ship and ending them by saying that we could pump out 1000 tons per hour , she said "My My you must feel tired at the end of the day" I suggest you get your grandmothers sea minded.

Well you get your G.Ms for pulling bombs out of holes but try sitting on top of 10,000 tons of aviation spirit for three weeks. A tanker blown up is a sight that one remembers for the rest of ones life.

The channels are buoyed (a gigantic task for Trinity House which is carried out well) They are swept by the housemaids of the sea, the minesweepers who cover 2,000 miles every 24 hours. Once the Convoy is out of the swept channel there is trouble for we have our own minefields protecting our shores. To make things a little more awkward mines are laid in the fairway by planes and E Boats. Attack from the air in daytime is not often experienced now that we fly balloons and we are able to fire rockets with wires and parachutes attached. Constant communication is kept with our fighter boys. A welcome sight over the convoy and indeed a noble sight when they took off in hundreds in the early hours for Dieppe with their coloured wing tips and white tail lights burning.

As dusk falls the low attack may be expected and all guns are double banked. I find that we have so many bombers going to Germany that we have difficulty sorting out friend and foe.

E Boats  like dark nights and clam. Here again we have our own m/l's screening us and often have ringside seats for these private battles.

  The new lifesaving gear and protective clothing to prevent death from exposure in open boats has recently been installed with marked success. The cork lifejacket that broke necks has been replaced by Kapok. Should a man find himself in the water he plus in a small red light on the shoulder of his jacket.

Well our trips are often quite pleasant and without incident but if we have bad weather all hands are kept on their feet for 56 hours.

I hope that I have not led to believe that convoying is a picnic. We have our reverses and exceedingly grim times all being experienced in the Atlantic and Russian Convoys. The task has not eased up but we feel that we have a fist to hit back with& hit hard. We cannot afford for one moment to slacken the pace and thank heaven we shall see great things happening in the spring. Happenings that you and I must make the conclusive knock out blow.”

Cmdr Frederick Alfred George Hunter - Commodore Coastal Convoys, HMS Leigh.

Many thanks to the Hunter family for allowing us to share Cmdr Hunter’s experiences.

Main image courtesy of Dean Trotter

© 2020 Blade Education

Blade Education is a not for profit company registered in England and Wales. Company No. 06228254. Registered office 43/SS93DT.